Saturday, April 18, 2015

Lowry Nelson's Reflections on the State of Academic Freedom at BYU and the Personality of Heber J. Grant

Last month I began reading the memoirs of brother Lowry Nelson. Immediately, the historian in me desired to transcribe and share Chapter 16 ("Again the Church and I"), which included one of the most remarkable exchanges in 20th century Mormon history: the 1947 correspondence between Dr. Nelson and the First Presidency of the LDS Church regarding the racist Priesthood/temple ban, which so deeply concerned him.

Yet that chapter wasn't the only chapter in which Dr. Nelson wrote about the intersection of his career and his church. Chapter nine, "The Church and I", gives us a glimpse into the atmosphere at Brigham Young University in the early 20th century, as well as the surprisingly idiosyncratic personality of Church President Heber J. Grant. Moreover, Nelson further details the experience that that got him in "hot water," later published as an article in Dialogue: Journal of Mormon Thought entitled "The Ordeal of Lowry Nelson and the Mis-spoken Word." Nelson laments how the atmosphere at BYU began to degenerate enough that he left the university before spending the bulk of his career at the University of Minnesota and finally retiring back to Provo:

In the Direction of His Dreams
Memoirs of Lowry Nelson

Chapter 9 (pages 248—260)

The Church and I

During the 1920s and the early 1930s, the academic atmosphere at BYU was remarkably free of restraints. About 1933, however, the Church authorities became somewhat uneasy about what was happening. Partly, this unease was the result of an extraordinary summer session in which four faculty members from the University of Chicago gave courses primarily for teachers in the LDS seminaries at the high school level. There were courses in the Old Testament, New Testament, the history of the Christian Church, and one in social ethics. The men were well-known authorities in their fields. The seminary men were extraordinarily enthusiastic about these courses, which opened new windows on their limited theological education and showed the vast landscape of the world of biblical scholarship. This turned out to be something of an affront to the Church authorities. The Church had always claimed to have the “truth,” so why go outside for instruction?

My old friend Dr. Widtsoe, now an Apostle of the Church, had returned from presiding over the British and European Mission and was made Commissioner of Church Education. It should be noted that almost any teacher in science—physical, biological, or social—is frequently asked by Mormon students how his ideas or instruction conflict with or conform to Church doctrine. Often the questions are not raised in the class, but letters are sent to the President of the Church complaining about the professor.

Dr. Widtsoe conceived the idea of holding personal conferences with individual faculty members, with another Apostle and President Harris present. An appointment was arranged for each and every faculty member. Questions about the individual’s faith—whether he prayed, paid tithing, attended meetings, held office in organizations, and so on—were the mainstay of the interviews. I was not asked these questions formally as most others were. Both Dr. Widtsoe and President Harris, as I have pointed out several times in this memoir, were friends, and they always seemed to have complete confidence in me. I mention this because it is important to what happened shortly after this “inquisition”—as the faculty termed it. I didn’t know Apostle Callis, the third man present at my interview. But I was practically waved out of the room a minute or so after I had entered.

Not long after my interview, I found myself in real “hot water.” It was during the summer of 1934, while I was commuting by car to the State Capitol organizing the Welfare Division. On my return in the afternoon, I always went to my office to see what I had to attend to. On one particular day, I was asked to call President Harris, whose office now was in the Maeser Building on the hill. (I was occupying his former office in the Education Building on the lower campus.) Harris told me that Oscar Russell, an old friend of his, had brought in a French professor of economics from the University of Algiers. This Frenchman was making a study of the relation of religion and economics and would like to interview me and get copies of my studies. I was introduced to him, and he, Russell, and I returned to my office. I obtained the bulletins and presented them to the Frenchman. Since he also wanted to interview a student, I introduced him to one who happened to be in my office, Howard Forsyth. While the interview was taking place I returned to my car, anxious to get home because I had a regional social workers meeting that night in Provo. Oscar came over to the car window as I was about to start the motor and told me that the Frenchman would also like to interview an apostate Mormon. He asked if there was anyone I could suggest. I laughed, and said, “I have a meeting tonight which Dean Brimhall will also attend.”
“Would you consider him an apostate?” Russell asked.
“Not exactly, but, you know, he is not active in the church.”
“Well,” asked Russell, “what would his attitude be about immortality?”

Of course, that was a ridiculous question, and I simply said it would be necessary to ask him. “What is your own attitude about immortality? he asked.
“I suppose I would have to say that it is something I do not know. It is something one can consider as an hypothesis which cannot be tested by any method we know, whether it is true or not. Up to now, nobody has taken me up and shown me the pearly gates.”

I was still anxious to leave, but asked him what his own attitude was. “I can explain it this way. My field is the study of speech. I have an explanation as to why people lose their voices. It involves the behavior of certain muscles of the throat. I have never seen these muscles behave, but I know they do act in the way I have been able to describe. In that sense I feel I can say that I know immortality is a fact.”

I told him I thought he had made a great leap in logic and wished I could discuss it further with him, but had to leave. I did say that I thought his was only an hypothesis about the muscles. Some day it might be tested and found false. He was not impressed.

I soon forgot the whole thing. He was a Ph.D. and held an important post in his field at Ohio State University. I felt free to talk frankly with him, as I always could with my colleagues at the university. A short time after this event, however, I met a friend on the street in Salt Lake City. After an exchange of pleasantries, he said: “I understand you are a very dangerous man at BYU. Oscar Russell says he wouldn’t send his children there because it would undermine their faith.”  That Oscar was spreading this rather widely soon came to me from other sources. I was distressed. It seemed to me quite beneath the kind of behavior one would have a right to expect from a person of his training and position. After all, our conversation had not even been fifteen minutes long. I was also worried that his spreading rumors about BYU would cause harm to the institution.

So, out of anxiety, I did the wrong thing: I wrote him a letter. In it I reproduced our conversation somewhat as I have just done. I also mentioned the fact that I felt agnostic about the problem, in the true meaning of the word—not knowing. I submitted to President Harris the draft of what I wanted to send to Oscar and asked, “Should I send this?” He wrote in the margin of the draft, “Certainly, FSH.” [Franklin S. Harris]

Russell was something of a linguist, by the way, and was acting as interpreter for the French economist. I surely thought he would understand the word “agnostic.”

In a short time, Oscar struck with everything he could muster. He made copies of my letter, wrote a four-page single-spaced letter of his own, and sent copies of both to the members of the Board of Trustees of BYU and to President Harris and Professor Guy C. Wilson—a veteran Church educator now serving on the BYU faculty whom Russell had known for many years.

Both Harris and Wilson opened their mail while I was still in class.  Wilson came into my office with his copy later on. I was floored. Russell had used the occasion to tell of his own faith and knowledge about immortality. I don’t recall what all else he had said, except that I was by my own confession no better than Robert C. Ingersoll (probably the most famous self-styled agnostic in American history). We all got copies of the letters on Wednesday. It was the custom then for the Council of the Twelve Apostles and the First Presidency to hold a weekly meeting in the Temple on Thursday. After this meeting, following the receipt of the letters, one of the Apostles, Richard R. Lyman, called President Harris from his home and told him what had happened. President Grant had read the letters in the meeting and was very angry. “You better get Lowry and come up in the morning [Friday] and call on President Grant.”

We went, of course, and it proved to be a memorable day. We called on Dr. Lyman in his Church office, and he said President Grant was so angry that none of them felt they should try to say anything in my defense.  Then he told us of some of this own talks with his colleagues. He mentioned a fellow Apostle, Orson F. Whitney, who wrote a regular column in the Church newspaper called “Saturday Night Thoughts.” In one of these columns, according to Lyman, Whitney had mentioned the miracle of an ax floating on the water. “Now Brother Orson,” Dr. Lyman had said, “you know an ax won’t float on water.”  He also told of challenging Dr. Widtsoe on another occasion when he had written something that Lyman thought less than logical. He had said, “Now John, you couldn’t tell that group of men [pointing to a group photograph of engineers on the wall of his office] what you have just told me.”

The Council meeting must have been an interesting performance by President Grant, although no more detail was offered by Dr. Lyman other than to emphasize that the President was very angry. One can only imagine Apostles Widtsoe and Callis, who had just gone over the staff to discover any heresies, sitting there with red faces and trying to sink through the floor. As an angry President, Grant was not to be interrupted by anyone when he was on the trail of a “professor,” especially one who was showing something less than complete knowledge that the “gospel was true.”

President Grant was an uncomplicated man. Far from being intellectually interested in problems, he already knew he had the answers: that he was right, that Mormonism had everything he or anyone else needed to be saved in the world to come. He had one sermon. It dealt with his own efforts to improve his ability—to play ball, to learn to sing, and various other accomplishments. His theme was persistence and practice. He had, in short, a monumental ego. His basic secular interest was business, and he tended to measure the quality of other men by the standard of financial success. He was made an Apostle at the age of twenty-six, and as my colleague Professor John C. Swenson once said: “The trouble with President Grant is that nobody had asked him any questions since he became an Apostle.” He was anti-intellectual, and was greatly annoyed by any letters he received from students at BYU that were critical of their professors. He had already gotten the State to take over several junior colleges of the Church, including Weber, Snow, and Dixie, and had tried to get the Idaho Church to take over Ricks College in Rexburg. In this he and been unsuccessful. Grant wanted nothing more than to get rid of Brigham Young University and the annoying letters about professors.

President Grant received us by appointment at 11am. He greeted us kindly and affably, but explained that he didn’t want to discuss the matter of our visit until 3pm when his counselors, J. Reuben Clark, Jr., and David O. McKay, could be present. We moved to depart, but he began talking about other things and, as it turned out, spent the entire hour with us sitting there listening to him. He seemed completely relaxed, whereas I had expected him to be cold and standoffish. He told us two long stories, one concerning his outwitting a man—I believe a son of Brigham Young—who came to a bank where Grant was working and expected to borrow a considerable sum. It was the Church bank. Anyway, he told how he avoided having to make the loan, which he knew the man was not worthy to have. I was not interested in the details and remember none.

The other story was far more interesting. It had to do with a celebrated case in Mormon history in which an Apostle, accused of adultery, was dropped from the Council of the Twelve and dis-fellowshipped. The Council had held an inquiry at which the woman testified. The accused Apostle, A.C. Carrington, denied that he was guilty so vigorously, claiming that he was a victim of the woman’s charges, that the Council voted in his favor. President Grant said he believed the woman, although he had no clear evidence to refute the testimony of Carrington. In some manner, which I now forget, he did get further evidence and again brought the charge against his colleague. This time Carrington confessed to having had sexual relations with the woman, but denied it constituted adultery, because adultery involved “mixing of seed” and he (Carrington) had used a silk handkerchief. All of the President’s stories of his experiences made him the hero. So much for 11 o’clock appointment. We were to be back by 3pm.

After lunch, President Harris and I called on the manager of Deseret News, simply as a good-will visit that might yield favorable attitudes toward BYU. S.O. Bennion had recently been appointed to the position after a long tenure as President of one of the LDS Missions. Somehow he got on the subject of President Grant. He said he was called to the President’s office one day and found the President upset because the Deseret News had not reported a sermon he had given the day before at a funeral. Bennion said he had been visited several times in his mission by President Grant, and had always found him to be a fatherly, genial guest. “I had never seen this man before,” he said of Grant’s behavior this time. “He was not the President Grant I knew. It was someone else.” Bennion told us he then called his editor, Mark Peterson, and asked him to look up the item—which he knew had appeared—and bring it to the President’s office. When the President saw it, he was embarrassed and apologized. Said Bennion, “I think his daughters put him up to these things.”

The appearance before the First Presidency was rather brief. I was so embarrassed that President Harris nervously went to such lengths to defend me that I was unable to say anything. I think it was just as well, because there was not much I could say. President Grant said, “Of course, we have the evidence here.” (He pointed to a drawer in his desk.) He went on to say that it would be turned over to the Commissioner of Education for him to make an investigation. About the only word of consolation I got from the meeting came from J. Reuben Clark, Jr., when he said, “You used a very unfortunate word in your letter.” He was referring of course to “agnostic.” I couldn’t say at the time that I thought I was writing to an understanding man of some knowledge; at least I certainly hadn’t written to President Grant.

The following Wednesday the speaker at the weekly assembly in College Hall was David O. McKay, whom I had known for a number of years and greatly admired. I knew all the McKay family. The youngest brother, Morgan, had been a member of our fraternity. Word was passed to me that President McKay would like to see me after the assembly. I went with him, President T.N. Taylor of the Utah Stake, and President Harris to his automobile at the curb. President McKay said, “All I wanted to tell you was that there will be no investigation.” At that I confess I shed a tear.

There was still some aftermath. Apostle Stephen L Richards, who was related to the Knight family through the marriage of their children, came to Provo on a visit and let President Harris know that he would like to have a talk with me. Accordingly, I showed up at the Knight home (now the Berg Mortuary). A fire was lit in a bedroom fireplace upstairs, and Brother Richards and I went there for a talk. As we talked about the letters in which I had said I didn’t know that immortality was a fact, he suddenly said something I shall always admire him for: “I am sure you know as much as I do about it.” I was rather sure that was true, but had heard all my life the burning testimonies of men in authority in the Church that they “knew” that there was an existence after death. He went on to suggest that I write President Grant a letter expressing my loyalty to the Church and so on. I did this, but I am sure President Grant never trusted me. He had all the “evidence” he needed in the tirade of Oscar Russell. I never heard from him.

A footnote on Oscar Russell. He had been trying for years to obtain an appointment in Utah but to no avail. In his letter, he was obviously attempting to prove his own virtue, and by that to ingratiate himself into the favor of President Grant. I confess that the thought entered my mind that I might duplicate the correspondence and circularize the board of Ohio State University, but I had no intention of doing so. I still wonder what they would have thought. Oscar did finally get a job in Utah as superintendent of the deaf and blind school in Ogden. I received one more letter from him after the election of a new president at the University of Utah. I had been a candidate along with Adam S. Bennion, and the Board was tied seven to seven; after many votes, they had chosen a compromise candidate. Oscar wrote to congratulate me on being a candidate along with “such a distinguished man as Adam S. Bennion.” I did not acknowledge the letter; I was through writing to Oscar.

Pressures on the faculty were increasing and President Harris was no longer able to maintain the spirit of free inquiry that had been so much a mark of his administration up to this time. At least one other faculty member, Hugh M. Woodward in philosophy, had been called on the carpet over his teaching of comparative religions. He had even published a book, The Common Message of the World’s Great Religions. In his interview with the First Presidency, Hugh told me that he remarked to them that, since they were members of the Board, they had a right to eliminate the book if they so desired. “No,” said President Grant, “go ahead and teach about these other religions, but when you get through with them show that they are not worth that.” He snapped his finger. Some faculty members found other jobs; Murray Hayes, a geologist, went to Washington and Walter Cottam, a botanist, to the University of Utah. Woodward (philosophy) found employment with the WPA educational program, and Coach Ott Romney became Athletic Director at West Virginia University. Grant Ivins (animal husbandry) became price administrator for Utah during World War II.

I was unhappy and disappointed by these developments. In later years, I could see more clearly that during the 1920s and the early 1930s we had been living in a fool’s paradise as far as academic freedom was concerned. The admonition to the faculty by President Harris to “teach the truth” was both sincere and courageous. Of course, he would spell truth with a small “t”’ and his Board, consisting mainly of Apostles of the Church, would agree with the statement but would spell the word with a capital “T.” Up to 1934, the university had been regarded with what one might call “benign neglect.” Any attempt to get increased appropriations from the Church, despite the rapid growth in enrollment, was brushed off with the remark of President Grant that “BYU is now receiving more money than did the entire Church educational system in the days of Horace H. Cummings.” (This would be about the first decade of the century.)

Suddenly, however, there was now a new concern that something was going wrong. Every letter from a complaining student regarding some faculty member received extraordinary attention. Students reared in the provincial Mormon communities, knowing only Mormon beliefs, and with little knowledge of the developments in secular knowledge, inevitably encountered conflicts in such courses as geology, biology, anthropology, and sociology. If the Bible, as they had always been taught to believe, was “the word of God,” how could there be an alternative theory of the origin and age of the world as well as the origin of man and other life on earth? The theory of evolution was a formidable problem for some students, not to mention that of the instructor who might try to reconcile it with Genesis.

It is quite clear in retrospect that BYU cannot enjoy academic freedom according to standards established at most state universities and the great private institutions like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and the rest. The BYU situation compares with that of Harvard in the seventeenth century, when its first President was made to resign because he failed to have one of his children baptized by immersion. It is not quite that bad at BYU, but the guidelines are quite rigid and conformity with them is enforced; the nonconformist is easily purged because the faculty does not have tenure.

I was greatly relieved when the offer came from Washington to join the New Deal as adviser for four western states.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Polygamy was not, is not, and never will be of God

My personal sense is that the LDS Church has paid (and will continue to pay) a high price by electing to present its history in the duplicitous way that it has in the past. However, better late than never! The good news is that it's easier to show mercy for past mistakes when good faith attempts are being made to overcome those mistakes by doing better in the present. Mercifully the LDS Church has begun presenting its history in a more honest and accurate way, evidence of which can be found with the online "Gospel Topics" essays that have been commissioned, vetted, and approved by the First Presidency and Quorum of the 12 Apostles and posted on the website under "Teachings".

Still, it's going to take a lot more time and a lot of uncomfortable conversations to undo all the years worth of collectively allowing the myth of prophetic infallibility to spread like a cancer among the church. While the gospel topics essays provide more honest and accurate historical context, I imagine that in order to get unanimous approval, compromises had to made regarding just how candid or explicit to be. Compromises are necessary at times for progress to be made, so while on the one hand it's wonderful the essays went as far as they did, it's also clear that they stopped short in some areas.

One of the areas where they stopped short was definitively slamming down once and for all the myth of prophetic infallibility. Perhaps our leaders fear for the countless Saints whose fragile testimonies are built upon the sandy foundation of "practically perfect" prophets rather than the solid "rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God" and upon which we "must build [our] foundation" (Helamen 5:12.) The new modern church essays take incremental steps forward in the right direction without risking any radical rush to shake things up, as was so common during the early days of the Restoration.

And yet I have some concerns with some of the essays. My biggest concern was not the lack of a definitive "nail in the coffin" on the myth that God commanded the priesthood/temple ban in the first place, allowing some to read it and come away feeling that the explanations for the ban were wrong, but not the ban itself. No, there is enough evidence made clear by the history that we no longer need to continue to disgrace God in order to save the reputation of past prophets and presidents of the church who were clearly wrong when it came to race and the priesthood. No, that's not my concern, especially because that particular essay did "unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form." That alone is enough for me to justify equally and unequivocally condemning "the policy/practice/doctrine" itself that denied black men the priesthood and kept black men and women from the blessings of the temple because it was itself "profoundly, irreducibly, and irredeemably racist."

My biggest concern was with the plural marriage essays leaving no room for me as a reader to conclude on my own that polygamy was likewise not commanded by God. Apparently they think we're all supposed to pretend to be perfectly comfortable disgracing God to save the reputation of a prophet. Surprisingly, the plural marriage essays maintain that polygamy was commanded by God despite the "historical and scriptural evidences which show the practice as being actually contrary to Heaven’s intent. The Information Age now unravels over one hundred and eighty years of the tenacious, simplistic and presumptive claim that Deity merely commanded this practice and later commanded that it stop. Today’s available information leaves little credibility, integrity or reason for continued neutrality, duplicity or reticence on this question." (Quote by Curtis Henderson in his preface below.)

I dream of a more robust church culture/environment that allows faithful people of conscience to conclude for themselves that polygamy was never commanded by God--an enviornment that allows one to follow the truth no matter where the evidence may lead. I can still appreciate the prophetic gift regardless of a prophet's character. I can handle prophets who do amazing things and also disgraceful things. I can accept that kind of reputation. (It fits with the reality of prophets, whether we’re talking about Moses, Martin Luther King Jr., or Joseph Smith.) Would that the Church collectively could embrace that instead of trying to make Joseph Smith out to have impeccable character, which is a thing Joseph never claimed for himself.

We don't have to discount the good that came from the restoration even if we reject polygamy as a true part of that restoration. I'll be even more blunt. Even if it were true that Joseph Smith committed adultery (and there are reasons to be ambivalent about that) we don't need to reject that which came forth when he actually was acting as a prophet. The instrument doesn't have to be spotless to still produce good music.

A lot of research has been done to help us to indeed hear the beautiful music of the gospel and the restoration without having to embrace the discordant and awful notes of polygamy. Curtis Henderson is an active and believing Latter-day Saint whose "thesis concludes that LDS polygamy came into the Church through errant mortal influences more than through purely divine revelation, and that the long supposed benefits or authenticity of this practice will not be realized by practitioners or anticipators." He concludes: "There is now ample information for outright rejecting the propriety of polygamy. This work does so from the standpoint of believing and embracing the latter-day restoration without having to accept polygamy as a true part of that restoration."

You can view his full article online here or download a PDF and other work of his from the "A Thoughtful Faith" podcast episode 82: Curtis Henderson – The Errant Nature of Polygamy, Fallible Prophets, and Seeking for Truth. I highly recommend downloading and listening to the podcast interview and the rest of his work. What now follows is the complete text from just the preface to his article:

"Interpreting and Interrupting Polygamy: A Way For Your Escape"


After eleven years of study and writing, this modern documentation on LDS polygamy can enlighten believers to embrace the latter-day restoration without having to accept polygamy as a true part of that restoration.

I began this project in 2000 upon word of the turmoil, separation and later divorce of a family member whose marriage had been undermined with notions of LDS polygamy. In all my adult years (beginning during my LDS mission) I functioned under misgivings and a reserved conclusion that something was wrong with LDS polygamy—that it did not come purely from God. Firm expressions in this direction started discussions, and in 2000 I concluded to thoroughly research this question once and for all. This task was embarked with a determination as never felt before. I recall how I had expressed myself as a bishop (1990s) with two high priests on an occasion where polygamy was discussed in a matter-of-fact way as being a command from God and a necessary part of “the restoration of all things.” I bluntly responded how I did not believe that—that surely polygamy could and should be explained in different terms. While both were surprised at my opposite candor, one responded especially aghast: “Oh!—really?” The look on his face clearly announced he had just discovered his bishop to be “anti-Mormon” (while I felt I was just “anti-fundamentalist”). Yet I continued to prayerfully search why God might “command” Joseph to live polygamy, until an occasion where I deemed a firm answer came in the form of a question: “Why do you keep suggesting that I did?” I tried to more thoroughly drop that supposition and further my studies. The reader is free to judge whether my early suspicions disqualify me to be heard on this subject.

Though I was aware that I came through polygamist ancestors, my mother confided that her parents displayed disdain against the practice. Conversely, I would learn that the family doctor, who helped deliver me at birth, wrote a book celebrating the doctor’s courageous polygamist ancestors for their praiseworthy living of the principle having futuristic promise, and claiming that practice to be “for heaven’s sake.” I wanted to send the doctor a manuscript of my early research findings and title it, “For Hell’s Sake, Doctor: Grow Up” (1 Cor. 13). But I didn’t. The doctor recounted enough community history with polygamy to contribute to my understanding. One small town in the community, Freedom, got its name because the main street was exactly on the State border. If the sheriff from one State came after an illegal polygamist, the fugitive simply crossed the street to a different State to avoid arrest. This home town historical reality not only symbolizes the prolonged dance the LDS institution had with this practice and the law as determined by the “School of Hard Knocks,” but perhaps also symbolizes my lot in life as being one of a transitional generation between opposite views and understandings of a peculiar practice.

As a relatively new religion, the LDS archives started opening to scholars only in the mid 1970s. Thereafter a wave of articles and books on this subject, escalated by the Information Age and the World Wide Web, is still rewriting and sweeping away the simplistic folklore long used to explain LDS polygamy. I would later see that I had joined a swelling wave already well in progress. Naturally, many will see those on the crest of this wave as deserters rather than reformers toward vital and overdue course corrections. 

One can notice the publishing dates of the articles and books in the reference notes and realize that most works with substantial information to offer on this topic came within the years of 1977 to the present, with only a few in the 70s and 80s, the vast majority coming after 1991— the bulk of these since 2000. The first major work studied was Van Wagoner’s Mormon Polygamy (1989) which shocks the orthodox perspective into contrary realizations and awakenings. Van Wagoner’s work shows a volume of evidences exposing LDS polygamy of its clumsy mortal and errant characteristics. I would have never guessed that my early suspicions against the validity or purity of the practice would be historically supported in so many detailed ways. I had expected little evidence contrary to the orthodox view. Soon the biggest puzzle to me was how the LDS institution could continue explaining this practice with the oversimplified and superfluous claim that heaven commanded or required it, and that later heaven commanded or required that it stop. I can no longer believe that portrayal, now certain it will not survive the scrutiny of history or scripture. The explanation for LDS polygamy follows a lengthier, more complex and tragic trail. How could God be “the same yesterday, today, and forever” while directing His Church to spend many years pursing opposite directions of a given question? “How long halt ye between two opinions?” (1 Kings 18:21).

Nearly all these research works come from qualified and believing LDS scholars who maintain testimonies of the Latter-day Church while, contrary to the orthodox view in one degree or another, choosing to exclude some details or beliefs as being outside rather than inside the perimeter of gospel validity or truth. Many have inescapably abandoned the “all or nothing” notion that everything Joseph Smith or the Church teaches or embraces must endure and be defended as being correct or pure.

In approximately 2005 I discovered and studied Donna Hill’s biography on Joseph Smith (Joseph Smith: The First Mormon, [1977]—“the first major biography of the founder of the Mormon Church since 1945”) and was surprised at some of her bold statements, at such an early date, acknowledging potentially grave errors in Smith’s life and leadership—certainly far different than institutional portrayals. As volumes continued to surface, the contradictions only became more pronounced. By 1984 Richard Bushman would say:
I am a practicing Mormon who considers himself believing but who rejects absolutist elements of the fundamentalist world view, e.g., the view of Joseph Smith as omniscient or morally perfect or receiving revelation unmixed with human and cultural limitations. However, I do accept non-absolutist incursions of the supernatural into human experience (Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 629).
Later Bushman’s 2005 book would hit the streets as a “warts-and-all biography” by “the preeminent Smith scholar.” News reported: “Rough Stone Rolling also acknowledges contradictions between historical records and ‘official’ records of the LDS Church. ‘We should just admit we have a problem,’ Bushman said. ‘And don’t look for a quick fix solution’” (4:53).

A 19 November 2009 KUTV special on Mormons and Masons included an interview with LDS historian Kenneth W. Godfrey who acknowledged that some forty “words and phrases” in our temple endowment ceremony are identical to what Masons use, requiring us to now conclude that Smith “borrowed” them from his personal Masonic experience (many have long known this). Other recent productions and publications tracing the blacks and priesthood issue of the Church, in similarity to the polygamy issue, clearly manifest how prohibiting blacks from the priesthood was not the initial practice, then became the practice (through some mortal and questionable means and influences), and then became again no longer the practice. Monogamy, then polygamy, then back to monogamy followed this same meandering chronology. Even temple practices and policies qualifying patrons for certain rites are ever changing, added or removed. We need to keep our eye on the North Star (Christ) more than on generational understandings or mortals (even true prophets). We need to test all ideas with all scripture, realizing, as warned by the Book of Mormon and other sources, that even scripture has been dangerously infiltrated. I can not imagine some practices within temple policies being anything more than unfortunate remnants of incorrect polygamy notions which will eventually be eradicated from the Church and its temples. Anything that contradicts God’s character or treats genders unequally will not endure, despite the fact that some such practices still do.

I realize that the study of LDS polygamy is only one subject of many. During this research I certainly studied numerous other subjects and historical detail (some of these works are broad biographies or histories well beyond polygamy). At one point (approximately 2008), Michael R. Ash’s Of Faith and Reason: 80 Evidences Supporting the Prophet Joseph Smith caught my eye and I took a break designed to remind myself of the inexplicable ways the unlearned Joseph got so many things right (by analysis of modern scholars who now have immeasurably more pieces of relevant information to add to what Joseph gathered in his day). I also read through all the standard works with the polygamy question especially in mind, repeatedly scrutinizing sections, verses and areas which substantially applied.

But the LDS culture has a predominant emphasis on the infallibility of prophets (especially Joseph Smith). Any periodic insistence that we do not believe in the infallibility of true prophets is followed by many implications, assurances and fanatical portrayals that we indeed do. Besides all the scriptural stories divulging repeated fallibility among the prophets, I collected some of the bold scriptural warnings which teach that individuals must guard against prophetic error. Since we are predisposed to emphasize otherwise, these scriptures are seldom if ever used in LDS culture. For example: “For thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel; Let not your prophets and your diviners, that be in the midst of you, deceive you, neither hearken to your dreams which ye cause to be dreamed” (Jer. 29:8). Other scriptures boldly warn that prophets may errantly presume to speak His will or word, may see vain visions, may misinterpret in their divination duties, or may declare something as being the certain word of the Lord which is not from Him (Deut. 18:18-22; Ezek. 13:2-3, 7). This inescapable mortal condition was probably forewarned by Moroni who announced that “God had a work for me [Joseph Smith] to do; and that my name should [not just would but should] be had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues, or that it should be both good and evil spoken of among all people” (JS-H 1:33).

The question is not over motives or intentions of Joseph, Brigham or others. The wrestle is not with any mortal but with “principalities,” “powers,” “…darkness,” and “spiritual wickedness” on their way to penetrating our own lives (Eph. 6:12).

One of my sons coincidently met a well-known actor at a ski resort (2004) and conversed with him about the actor’s enthusiastic interest in producing a movie about LDS polygamy. The actor had joined the Church (married an LDS girl) and was considering making the movie. Typical of the ongoing confusion with this subject, a California bishop had spent some ten years writing and pursuing the script. The actor’s LDS father-in-law was also supportive and expected polygamy in the afterlife. The actor was anxious to talk with someone in the western United States who might have LDS tenure and experience on the topic. My son, upon the encouragement of a co-worker who was aware of this research, connected the actor with me. An hour-long phone discussion ensued, followed by a more detailed letter. Ultimately, the California bishop was upset with me for introducing the actor to an opposite view of LDS polygamy. The actor learned how a member got excommunicated for writing a recent book (Whelan, More Than One; 2001) defending LDS polygamy with a tone for its inevitable coming future (in this life or the next). The actor was shocked to learn of a view different than the one he had been exposed to.

Van Wagoner made a bold historical analysis for his 1989 book that, “there has been no comprehensive study of polygamy from its earliest stirrings in the 1830s to its current practice among Mormon Fundamentalists.” This was the case for many reasons, among them being unquestioned loyalty, the popularized assumption that everything done by Joseph Smith was purely from heaven, and the long unopened archives of the Church. Van Wagoner then states that his book “is intended to be a reliable introduction to a complex subject for both Mormons and non-Mormons alike” (MP, xi-xii). Since then, as shown above, volumes of works have surfaced. Those who have not studied the recent information that became available during the 90s and after 2000 have not taken the first step toward understanding this subject. The Church as an institution has not supposed, portrayed, or hardly left room for the errant nature history is now exposing concerning this practice and its entrance into the Church. We can now see substantial evidence that, despite our schooling to the contrary, Joseph Smith’s exuberance for fulfilling his role in reforming apostate Christianity got him swept up in some radical notions, also prevalent in his culture, for the “rejection of civil, secular, sectarian, non-Mormon marriage” (Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 17) to the point that, for a season, he began to see marital fidelity between one man and one woman as a prudish superstition (despite deep scriptural and historical support for strict one-with-one marriage). This trend for abandoning monogamous marriage could have happened partly because he was unlearned, young and inexperienced, took in converts who believed these things, and entertained and incorporated these notions from other religious movements of his day. 

Fortunately, some key documents expressing his thoughts and reasoning, though he had commonly instructed that they be destroyed, in fact were preserved. His letter to Nancy Rigdon, imploring her to be his plural wife, exposes Joseph’s reasoning which Bushman labels “terrifying” and “unnerving” (Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, 441). Despite extreme efforts to hide this practice by using code words, secrecy and inordinate denial, enough pieces of the jigsaw puzzle have now been reset to portray an identifiable picture. Within eleven days of Joseph’s marriage to Zina Jacobs (and Zina and her husband continued to live and bear children together) Joseph publicly seems to defend his odd actions which would likely cause stirrings since multiple people (including Zina’s husband Henry) were certainly involved in the ceremony: “What many people call sin is not sin;; I do many things to break down superstition, and I will break it down” (NP, 76, 523). This precise perspective against traditional marriage endured and was promoted among sincerely religious people of Joseph’s day; and he clearly began to ignore and reject civil marriages (MP, 7-11, 24, 42-49; Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 17, 20-21; NP, ix-xvi, 479-550). For a season Joseph challenged the longtime proven directives for devoted marital fidelity between one man and only one woman (along with the meanings to several of the ten commandments) and held them at bay during some shocking experimentations before the pendulum would swing back toward a semblance of decorum. Eleven of Joseph’s plural wives were married to other men, seven of these being stalwart Latter-day Saint men (Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 4-9, 15, 43-54; Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, 437, 439). But his practice of marrying women who were already married gradually decreased— his last such marriage being more than a year prior to the martyrdom. And “the eight-month cessation of [any more] marriages at the end of his life is a notable phenomenon” (Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 3). Joseph significantly experimented with some forms of religious anarchy before settling back toward vital basics; at times he attempted “to adapt religion to human nature,” rather than the reverse (NP, xvi, 407).

Indeed, even today, “Some members [and policies] of the mainstream Mormon Church are also closeted polygamists” (Moore-Emmett, God’s Brothel, 25-26; NP, 546-548). And, as if Joseph did not possess enough weakness in himself, many researchers on this subject declare that (in one degree or another) Brigham Young took some of Joseph’s most questionable teachings to even more radical levels (ex.: NP, 299). Hill (and others) identify Joseph’s risky and inexperienced tendency to overconfidently trust what came into his mind, presuming heaven must be putting it there as a “command” (page 42).

In retrospect perhaps some naivety allowed Joseph’s confidence in seeing himself as being “void of offense towards God, and towards all men” (D&C 135:4). At least one account reports him fainting during his awful personal experience of facing his angry mob while approaching his martyrdom (Hill, Joseph Smith, 407-408). Somehow, no matter how inadvertent or pure his intent, many had become deeply injured and threatened by him. While some unwavering loyalists inside the Church willingly gave themselves, their wives or daughters to his plurality, others were offended and injured. Some stalwartly followed only to realize their trauma later. Others promptly stood and remained in opposition to the practice while obeying their conscience through their enormous pains of leaving the Church and prophet they loved— some being compelled, others at will. Some of these names are still being castigated by the mainstream Church as though we have all the answers. A careful analysis of the following quote manifests the evolutionary, mortal and experimental characteristics of LDS polygamy.
In other words, for over a decade prior to Smith’s first plural marriages, he met and established relationships with those who would later become his wives. …Polygamy was not the exclusive prerogative of Joseph Smith. In his letters and other documents of the period, from his wedding to Emma in 1827 to his first recorded plural marriage in 1841, he committed himself to allow other men this form of concurrent matrimony. But at first, Joseph did not seek a formal wedding. (NP, 35, 38)
In some respects Joseph Smith seemed to embark his mission as reformer or restorer by wiping the slate clean and starting over. Then, in harmony with the reality that revelation must follow a line upon line process, he started some archaic things on a level near anarchy which desperately needed to be buried and replaced with higher levels through the natural revelatory process. But mortals too often cling to errant lines rather than only the better lines meant to supersede them. It potentially becomes a major tragedy if we fail to be aware of or acknowledge the substantial historical evidence that prior to his martyrdom Joseph Smith came to a deep fear that we had been deceived in our pursuit of polygamy. Although we are left without an official terminal document direct from the martyred prophet proving he “came to believe polygamy was wrong,” the best investigative evidence is not always what comes from one’s mouth or pen, but from the chronology and details of one’s behavior. Todd Compton’s research shows that for over a year before his martyrdom Smith never again married a woman who had a living husband. Added to testimonies that “Smith came to have doubts about polygamy before his death” is the “striking fact” and “notable phenomenon” that he “took no wives during the last eight months of his life” (Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 3-9). Followers should pay more careful attention to the improved directions of Joseph’s marital practices over his earlier declaratives and experimentations. Peter first taught (before further revelation) that the gentiles should not be given the gospel. To which of opposite teachings will you cling?

Through this research the reader has the freedom and the burden to question and explore the origins of LDS polygamy and to examine both historical and scriptural evidences which show the practice as being actually contrary to Heaven’s intent. The Information Age now unravels over one hundred and eighty years of the tenacious, simplistic and presumptive claim that Deity merely commanded this practice and later commanded that it stop. Today’s available information leaves little credibility, integrity or reason for continued neutrality, duplicity or reticence on this question. The reader bears the opportunity and sobering burden to discern any social or religious validity in polygamy or its notions.

This thesis concludes that LDS polygamy came into the Church through errant mortal influences more than through purely divine revelation, and that the long supposed benefits or authenticity of this practice will not be realized by practitioners or anticipators. Unlike this work, other writers have increasingly acknowledged many dichotomies and contradictions in polygamy while leaving readers stranded without sufficiently justifying the option of rejecting the practice if it is not proven to be a legitimate part of the restored gospel. Even some critical LDS historians have seemed determined to preserve space within their repertoire for the ongoing reverencing and sanctifying of past LDS polygamy—as if we cannot or must not make a definitive decision on this question. There is now ample information for outright rejecting the propriety of polygamy. This work does so from the standpoint of believing and embracing the latter-day restoration without having to accept polygamy as a true part of that restoration."

Inevitably, the question arises about testimony. I defend my mortal testimony of Christ, His patient work for His restored Church in this “last dispensation,” and of Joseph Smith’s contributions to heaven’s vast plan. While this study could be feared as undermining testimony, it ultimately unravels mere folklore and misunderstandings—providing doubt where faith shouldn’t exist. We have solemn obligations to gather, separate, and throw away (Matt. 13:47- 48). We each function from our own conscience in our duty to not misunderstand Joseph Smith, one another, or the truth. And “the Holy Ghost not only helps us to recognize plain truth but also plain nonsense!”—Neal A. Maxwell, Ensign, May 1993, 78. “[T]he work of the Church and the work in our homes is all done by imperfect people. Elder Richard L. Evans once said those who will only work with perfect people will soon be all alone” (Bruce C. Hafen, The Broken Heart, 182). Likewise, those who will only hear perfect prophets will soon have no prophets to hear. I find the Lord very patient and helpful in our solemn duty to discard certain things (“God desires that we learn and continue to learn, but this involves some unlearning. As Uncle Zeke said, ‘It ain’t my ignorance that done me up but what I know’d that wasn’t so’”—Faust quoting Hugh B. Brown, Ensign, July 2000, 2). Differences are certain since the burden falls on imperfect mortals to distinguish wheat from the tares and the chaff.

Curtis Henderson

Monday, April 6, 2015

Grace: Like An Oasis in the Desert

Like an oasis in the desert, President Uchtdorf's sermon "The Gift of Grace" was itself, for me, a grace. For years I've blogged about grace, almost feeling like I was being subversive, and meeting with resistance from fellow Mormons long steeped in a tradition that preached works so loudly that even the loud orchestra of grace found in the Book of Mormon was deafened. Mormonism began to hear the music louder beginning in the 90's, and it has been increasing in volume ever since.

Even still, after feeling as though I was being individually refreshed by the waters of Christ's grace, I've at times felt like a wanderer in a desert of Mormonism that traditionally hasn't collectively been embracing grace with equal enthusiasm. Individually, Latter-day Saints here and there have expressed their gratitude for grace, but it has felt more like a grass roots effort rather than something coming from the top down. (Parenthetically, Adam Miller's new little book is a must read whether top, bottom, or anywhere in-between: "Grace Is Not God's Backup Plan: An Urgent Paraphrase of Paul's Letter to the Romans.")

And for too long, we equivocated about the meaning of 2nd Nephi 25:23, particularly the line: "It is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do." Thus yesterday felt like a joyful and historic shift, to me, as that message of grace came loud and clear directly from a member of the First Presidency, one whom we sustain as a "prophet, seer, and revelator." No more do Mormons have any excuse to misunderstand:
I wonder if sometimes we misinterpret the phrase “after all we can do”. We must understand that “after” does not equal “because.” We are not saved "because" of all that we can do. Have any of us done all that we can do? Does God wait until we've expended every effort before he will intervene in our lives with His saving grace? Many people feel discouraged because they constantly fall short. They know first hand that "the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak." They raise their voices with Nephi in proclaiming, “My soul grieveth because of mine iniquities.” I am certain Nephi knew the Savior’s grace allows and enables us to overcome sin. This is why Nephi labored so diligently to persuade his children and brethren "to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God." After all, that is what we can do! And that is our task in mortality!

I had never yelled amen as many times and with as much gusto as I did during and after his marvelous sermon:

Salvation cannot be bought with the currency of obedience; it is purchased with the blood of the Son of God. Thinking that we can trade our good works for salvation is like buying a plane ticket and then supposing we own the airline. Or thinking that after paying rent for our home, we now hold title to the entire planet earth.
President Uchtdorf continued
If grace is a gift of God then why is obedience to His commandments so important?...We obey the commandments of God--out of love for Him! Trying to understand God’s gift of grace with all our heart and mind gives us all the more reasons to love and obey our Heavenly Father with meekness and gratitude. As we walk the path of discipleship, it refines us, it improves us, it helps us to become more like Him, and it leads us back to His presence. "The Spirit of the Lord [our God]" brings about such a "mighty change in us,...that we have no more disposition to do evil but to do good continually." Therefore, our obedience to God’s commandments comes as a natural outgrowth of our endless love and gratitude for the goodness of God. This form of genuine love and gratitude will miraculously merge our works with God’s grace. Virtue will garnish our thoughts unceasingly, and our confidence will wax strong in the presence of God.
Incidentally, another speaker in conference used a quote that stood out to me, one by Marcel Proust: "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes." Gratefully, my hope and my witness is that Mormonism is seeing with "new eyes" the real good news of the gospel; it is a beautiful landscape. The "good news" isn't Mormonism itself--the "good news" is Christ's grace. And it's the only thing that can save us, both individually and as a church collectively.

With Christ's grace as our only hope for salvation (whether from crises individual or institutional) we'd be wise to separate "the Church" and "The Gospel" from here on out. Christ must be more than a back seat passenger in Mormonism. For too long, too many have traditionally focused on ancillary things: family history, family, temple work, home teaching, "follow the prophet", food storage, tithing, callings, etc, etc. etc. In short, too many focus too much on "the church" itself. Christ's grace needs to emerge from the backseat and sit front and center. And we need to do more to make Christ the focus of all of our meetings, teachings, messages, and families. In short, we must make Christ and his grace more explicit rather than implicit in all that we do and say.

Keeping in mind that “in the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established", here are a couple of other eye-witness reactions that caught my eye from some faithful Mormon scholars I deeply respect:

Jacob Baker:
President Uchtdorf's Priesthood and Sunday morning addresses are essentially one magnificent sermon on Grace, the most significant and Scripturally Christian theological address to come out of the Mormon tradition by an apostle, possibly in all of LDS history, in my opinion. It can and should be studied, not just quoted from, in the future.

Dr. David Bokovoy:
Today was a great day. I especially enjoyed President Dieter F. Uchtdorf’s sermon “The Gift of Grace” and wanted to share a few personal thoughts. Shortly before my now 20 year-old daughter left on her full-time LDS mission in Chile, we enjoyed a fun, playful conversation.

“Dad,” she said, “I’m a bit nervous."

"What if I teach something that the Church doesn’t really believe?”

“Why would you be worried about that?” I asked.

“Well I am your daughter,” she jokingly replied.

“So you think I’ve taught you false doctrine?”

She smiled and replied, “Well, Dad, we all know you’re really big on grace.”

“Teach grace, Kate,” I said. “Teach grace.”

Though this conversation was somewhat whimsical, I do believe it captured one of the hermeneutical challenges within Mormonism. It’s admittedly not easy to fully reconcile an LDS emphasis upon obedience with the concept of salvation through God’s grace. The two perspectives create something of a religious paradox. In LDS scripture, God states “I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise” (D&C 82:10). Historically, many within the LDS community have used these types of statements to support a type of Pelagianistic belief that humans can earn at least some form of salvation through a work-based effort. Today, President Uchtdorf taught that this view is incongruent with God's plan of salvation. 
“Salvation cannot be bought with the currency of obedience,” he declared to a world-wide audience, “it is purchased by the blood of the Son of God. Thinking that we can trade our good works for salvation is like buying a plane ticket and then supposing we own the airline. Or thinking that after paying rent for our home, we now hold title to the entire planet earth." 
President Uchtdorf continued: 
“If grace is a gift of God then why is obedience to His commandments so important? We obey the commandments of God out of love for Him. Trying to understand God’s gifts of grace with all our heart and mind gives us all the more reasons to love and obey our Heavenly Father with meekness and gratitude. As we walk the path of discipleship it refines us, it improves us, it helps us to become more like Him, and it leads us back to His presence.” 
This was a remarkable conference sermon. Theologically, if we believe that God should save us because of our faithfulness then Jesus may be a helper; he may even be our example and inspiration, but he is not our Savior. Instead, we are our own saviors. This point is admittedly a challenging theological notion, which is why I was so fascinated and touched by President Uchtdorf's sermon. 
It reminded me of one of my favorite books on the topic of grace—The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller. Keller is a great Christian theologian. He is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. The Prodigal God is a powerful devotional reading of the famous parable in Luke 15:11-32. Keller explains that the parable describes two lost sons, one who abandons his father entirely in order to live a sinful life, and the other who lives a life of strict obedience in order to bind his father into giving a reward.

As Keller explains, it’s easy to recognize that the “younger brother” in this story is spiritually lost. Yet it’s much more difficult to see that the older brother—the one who faithfully attends Church and keeps the commandants-is likewise lost. “I never transgressed your commandments at any time," the older brother reminds the father. “And yet you never gave me a kid so that I could make merry with my friends.” This constitutes an extraordinary statement, and yet the father never denies the claim. The older brother in the parable had obeyed all the commandments.

So why was he spiritually lost? The answer is that the older brother obeyed the father for the wrong reason. He obeyed the father so that the father would feel forced to grant rewards. This explains why the older brother felt angry, and could not accept the grace extended to the younger brother who spent his share of the father's inheritance on riotous living. 
If our obedience to God derives from a desire to control divinity then our morality consists of a way to use God as an instrument to grant our desires. As the parable illustrates, this mindset causes us to look down upon younger brothers. Efforts to bind God through obedience creates elitism and classism (both of which are spiritually problematic or "lost" conditions). This is why the "older brother syndrome" fosters resentment towards younger brothers and divinity. On this point Keller writes: 
"The first sign you have an elder-brother spirit is that when your life doesn’t go as you want, you aren’t just sorrowful but deeply angry and bitter. Elder brothers believe that if they live a good life they should get a good life, that God owes them a smooth road if they try very hard to live up to standards. What happens, then, if you are an elder brother and things go wrong in your life? If you feel you have been living up to your moral standards, you will be furious with God. You don’t deserve this, you will think, after how hard you’ve worked to be a decent person! What happens, however, if things have gone wrong in your life when you know that you have been falling short of your standards? Then you will be furious with yourself, filled with self-loathing and inner pain. And if evil circumstances overtake you, and you are not sure whether your life has been good enough or not, you may swing miserably back and forth between the poles of 'I hate Thee!' and 'I hate me.'” (pp. 49-50).

It’s not that obedience and good works are insignificant for the Christian life. It’s that they must be performed for the right reason—the reason President Uchtdorf explained today in General Conference: because God is "prodigal" with humanity. He gives his grace so fully that there is nothing else left. God is the type of father we encounter in the parable, a father who runs out and embraces younger brothers and gives them all that he has. Christians should obey a God like that because we love him. Because he is so good we want to do more than do. We want to serve and become.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

An Inconvenient Truth: Lowry Nelson was right; The First Presidency was wrong

Darius Gray has inspired me to embrace the full truth, not just the convenient truth. I look to the past not to find fault, but to learn lessons that should inform us to be better today. With that said, I have found many important lessons from the 1947 correspondence between Lowry Nelson and the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I consider it a prequel, of sorts, to Greg Prince's "David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism." I find in Lowry Nelson an example of someone who followed his conscience to seek and to speak truth, even though the leaders he sustained at the time weren't ready for the truth. Please consider the magnitude of this ordeal and the fact that he actually was right and they were wrong. Perhaps we can all learn to be more humble about what we "know" to be true, and speak the truth in love:

In the Direction of His Dreams 
Memoirs of Lowry Nelson

Ch. 16 (pp. 334 through 349)

Again The Church And I

My reference in the previous chapter to the fact that I taught summer school at Utah State University would justify no further comment except for the fact I received a very upsetting letter. Because the ensuing correspondence was destined to put me in conflict with the authorities of my church, it is justifiably part of this chronicle.

The disturbing letter came from Heber Meeks, an old friend of my college days at Logan. Heber was now president of the Southern States Mission of the Mormon Church, with headquarters in Atlanta. He informed me that he had been in Cuba on instructions of the First Presidency to investigate the possibility of doing missionary work there. In Havana, he had met Chester Young, a friend of mine, who informed him that I had spent a year studying rural life in Cuba. Heber went on to say:

I would appreciate your opinion as to the advisability of doing missionary work particularly in the rural sections of Cuba, knowing, of course, our concept of the Negro and his position as the Priesthood.

Are there groups of pure white blood in the rural sections, particularly in the small communities? If so, are they maintaining segregation from the Negroes? The best information we received was that in the rural communities there was no segregation of the races and it would probably be difficult to find, with any degree of certainty, groups of pure white people.

I would also like your reaction as to what progress you think the Church might be able to make in doing missionary work in Cuba in view of, particularly in the rural section, the ignorance and superstition of the people and their being so steeped in Catholicism. Do you think our message would have any appeal to them?

I was stunned. My reply to Heber, dated June 26, 1947, in part, was as follows:

The attitude of the Church in regard to the Negro makes me very sad. Your letter is the first intimation I have had that there was a fixed doctrine on this point. I had always known that certain statements had been made by authorities regarding the status of the Negro, but I had never assumed that they constituted an irrevocable doctrine. I hope no final word has been said on this matter. I must say that I have never been able to accept the idea, and never shall. I do not believe that God is a racist. But if the Church has taken an irrevocable stand, I would dislike to see it enter Cuba or any other island where difference races live and establish missionary work. The white and colored people get along much better in the Caribbean and most of Latin America than they do in the United States. Prejudice exists, there is no doubt, and the whites in many ways manifest their feelings of superiority, but there is much less of it than one finds in the U.S.A, especially in our South. For us to go into a situation like that and preach a doctrine of “white supremacy” would, it seems to me, be a tragic disservice. I am speaking frankly, because I feel very keenly on this question. If world brotherhood and the universal-God idea mean anything, it seems to me they mean equality of races. I fail to see how Mormonism or any other religion claiming to be more than a provincial church can take any other point of view; and there cannot be world peace until the pernicious doctrine of the superiority of one race and the inferiority of others is rooted out. This is my belief. 
The Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists have, as you know, done a great deal of missionary work in the island, and have rendered Cuba a great service in maintaining schools, hospitals, etc.; however, they have limited their work largely to the urban centers. There is a great service to be rendered rural Cubans if the right approach were made. Mormonism is well adapted to render such service with its system of lay leadership and many activity programs. Many rural Cubans have nothing in the way of organized social life. To them, the family is the basic institution, and beyond it the neighborhood. Our Church would provide them with something very sorely needed. It would develop leadership among them, provide them with hope and aspiration, give them a feeling of importance as individuals which they have never had. They have been exploited by priest and politician; they have been led to believe that the government is not any of their responsibility and that the Church is the business of the priest and the bishop. While there is a great deal of individuals among them, they have definite and discernible feelings of inferiority when it comes to matters of leadership. 
I am talking about the white people now; the rural people are predominantly white. That is, they are as white as Mediterranean peoples are—Spanish, Italians, etc—who have been in contact with “color” for centuries. There are no pure races; on this anthropologist are in general agreement. Of course, this does not mean that Negro blood exits throughout the white race or vice versa. There is grave doubt, however, as to the purity of the Nordic, Mediterranean, or even the Negro. Because I think our system of religious organization could serve the rural Cuban people as no other system could, I am sad to have to write you and say, for what my opinion is worth, that it would be better for the Cubans if we did not enter their island—unless we are willing to revise our racial theory. To teach them the pernicious doctrine of segregation and inequalities among races where it does not exist, or to lend religious sanction to it where it has raised its ugly head, would, it seems to me, be tragic. It seems to me we just fought a war over such ideas. 
I repeat, my frankness or bluntness, as you will, is born of a fervent desire to see the causes of war rooted out of the hearts of men. What limited study I have been able to give the subject leads me to the conclusion that ethnocentrism, and the smugness and intolerance which accompany it, is one of the first evils to be attacked if we are to achieve the goal of peace.

On the same date, June 26, [1947] I wrote President George Albert Smith of the Mormon Church as follows:
Dear President Smith: 
I am in receipt today of a letter from President Heber Meeks, an old school friend, copy of which I am enclosing together with a copy of my reply. It is self-explanatory.

Perhaps I am out of order, so to speak, in expressing myself as I have. I have done so out of strong conviction on the subject, and with the added impression that there is no irrevocable Church doctrine on this subject. I am aware of statements and impressions which have been passed down, but I had never been brought face to face with the possibility that the doctrine was finally crystallized. I devoutly hope that such crystallization has not taken place. The many good friends of mixed blood—through no fault of theirs incidentally—which I have in the Caribbean and who know me to be a Mormon would be shocked indeed if I were to tell them my Church relegated them to an inferior status. 
As I told Heber, there is no doubt in my mind that our Church could perform a great service in Cuba, particularly in the rural areas, but it would be far better that we not go in at all, than to go in and promote racial distinction.
I wanted you to know my feelings on this question and trust you will understand the spirit in which I say these things. I want to see us promote love and harmony among peoples of the earth.
I was shortly informed by Joseph Anderson, secretary to the First Presidency, that I had failed to enclose a copy of my letter to Heber Meeks. This I promptly supplied, and in due time received the following reply, dated July 17:

Dr. Lowry Nelson
Utah State Agricultural College
Logan, Utah 
Dear Brother Nelson: 
As you have been advised, your letter of June 26 was received in due course, and likewise we now have a copy of your letter to President Meeks. We have carefully considered their contents, and are glad to advise you as follows:
We make this initial remark: the social side of the Restored Gospel is only an incident of it; it is not the end thereof. 
The basic element of your ideas and concepts seems to be that all God’s children stand in equal positions before Him in all things. 
Your knowledge of the Gospel will indicate to you that this is contrary to the very fundamentals of God’s dealings with Israel dating from the time of His promise to Abraham regarding Abraham’s seed and their position vis-à-vis God Himself. Indeed, some of God’s children were assigned to superior positions before the world was formed. We are aware that some Higher Critics do not accept this, but the Church does. 
Your position seems to lose sight of the revelations of the Lord touching the preexistence of our spirits, the rebellion in heaven, and the doctrines that our birth into this life and the advantages under which we may be born have relationship in the life heretofore.
From the days of the Prophet Joseph even until now, it has been the doctrine of the Church, never questioned by any of the Church Leaders, that the Negroes are not entitled to the full blessings of the Gospel. 
Furthermore, your ideas, as we understand them, appear to contemplate the intermarriage of the Negro and White races, a concept which has heretofore been most repugnant to most normal-minded people from the ancient patriarchs till now. God’s rule for Israel, His Chosen People, has been endogamous. Modern Israel has been similarly directed. 
We are not unmindful of the fact that there is a growing tendency, particularly among some educators, as it manifests itself in this area, toward the breaking down of race barriers in the matter of intermarriage between whites and blacks, but it does not have the sanction of the church and is contrary to Church doctrine.                       
Faithfully yours,
(signed) Geo. Albert Smith
J. Reuben Clark, Jr.
David O. McKay
The First Presidency

As much as I was “stunned” at Heber Meeks’ question regarding my knowledge of the existence of people of “pure white blood,” this letter from the First Presidency was shocking. I knew these men quite well, especially Presidents Smith and McKay. I knew all of the McKay family; the youngest son, Morgan, had been a member of my fraternity in Logan. I referred in an earlier chapter to the assistance of Dr. and Mrs. George R. Hill during my illness. Mrs. Hill was a sister of David O. McKay I adored the whole family. I had associated with President Smith in Boy Scout work. When he came to Minneapolis (in 1943?) he made a special point of having a talk with me. President Clark I knew only casually. He was a member of the First Presidency when I was called “on the carpet” earlier, as already described. [in chapter 9 “The Church and I”]

There is no doubt in my mind that he drafted this letter to me. A lawyer by profession, he had spent most of his career in political positions in Washington: Undersecretary of State in the Harding-Coolidge era and Ambassador to Mexico under Hoover. It was while he was ambassador that he was named a Counselor to President Grant. However, he continued to spend most of his time in New York with the Foreign Bondholders Association until the 1930s.

But the draftsman is only incidental. This was the law and the gospel on the subject. One revealing paragraph put words in my mouth that seem to favor intermarriage. This was gratuitous and I resented it, although I did not put my feeling in writing. It reveals the fear, as expressed by Southern whites, of “mongrelization.” It was probably a basic factor in the continuation of the policy.

My reply, dated October 8, was a long one:

University of Minnesota
Department of Agriculture
University Farm, St. Paul 1 
October 8, 1947 
The First Presidency
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints
47 East South Temple
Salt Lake City, Utah 
Dear Brethren:
Your letter of July 17th sent to me at Logan was forwarded here, but I had already left for Europe and so did not get it until I returned to my office September 8. I want to thank you for it, and the attention you gave me. The letter is, however, a disappointment to me, as you may surmise it would be from what I said in my letter to President Meeks.

It seems strange to me in retrospect—as it must have seemed to you—that I should have never before had to face up to this doctrine of the Church relative to the Negro. I remember that it was discussed from time to time during my boyhood and youth, Priesthood meetings or elsewhere in Church classes; and always someone would say something about the Negroes “sitting on the fence” during the Council in Heaven. They did not take a stand, it was said. Somehow there was never any very strong conviction manifest regarding the doctrine, perhaps because the question was rather an academic one to us in Ferron, where there were very few people who had ever seen a Negro, let alone having lived in the same community with them. So the doctrine was always passed over rather lightly I should say, with no Scripture ever being quoted or referred to regarding the matter, except perhaps to refer to the curse of Cain, or of Ham and Canaan. (I went back and re-read the latter the other evening. It was difficult to find any element of justice in Noah’s behavior toward Ham, since the latter merely reported to his brothers that his father was lying there in a drunken state and in a nude condition., and the other boys put a cover over him. Because Ham reported his father’s condition, he was cursed.)

But anyway, I really had never come face to face with the issue until this summer. In the meantime, since my youth, I have chosen to spend my professional career in the field of the social sciences, the general purpose of which is to describe and understand human behavior. I probably should have had less difficulty with some of these problems—such as the race problem—had I remained in agronomy and chemistry, my undergraduate fields of specialization. Be that as it may, my experience has been what it has been. As a sociologist, I have sincerely tried, and am still trying, to understand human social relations: the varied forms of organization, the process of conflict, cooperation, competition, assimilation, why peoples and cultures differ form one another, etc.

As one studies the history and characteristics of human societies, one comes to recognize certain basic principles. One of these is social change. Any given society over the years undergoes changes. It is forever in a state of flux. Some scholars have regarded such changes as progress, and have even considered that progress is inevitable. Others chart the rise and fall of civilizations and think in terms of cyclical change. Others express still different hypotheses, but none of them considers society as a static entity. 
Another principle which stands out as one studies the development of cultures is the tendency of institutions to resist change. Although they are established, or grow up, originally as means to the end of satisfying the ends in themselves. It seems to me that Jesus was trying to get this point over to the society of his day, when he spoke of putting new wine in old bottles, and that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath. This was an affront to the legalism of the Pharisees, and others of similar outlook, and of course the institutions had to be protected even at the cost of His crucifixion. 
Another principle that has come to occupy a central position in the analysis of human behavior is that of ethnocentrism. As defined by William Graham Sumner, who first developed the concept, it refers to the “view of things in which one’s own group is the center of everything and all others are sealed and rated with reference to it.” (The Folkways, p. 13.) Insofar as the “out-group” differs from the “in-group” it is regarded as inferior by the latter. A people with a different skin color would be automatically assigned to an inferior status. A language different from that of the in-group is, of course, an “inferior” one; and so on. This tendency is common to all groups. 
Now, what does this add up to in my thinking? It means that (1) if one accepts the principle of cultural or social change and applies it to the Hebrews, the Old Testament history of the group is interpreted accordingly. In their early stages of development they had beliefs and practices, many of which were subsequently supplanted by other ideas. Jehovah to the Hebrews of the Pentateuch was essentially a tribal deity. It was not until Amos that the idea of a universal God was proclaimed. And the concept of God as Love was an essential contribution of the mission of the Savior. (2) This, to me, represents “progressive revelation.” It seems to me that we still have much to learn about God, and some of our earlier notions of Him may yet undergo modification. (3) The early Hebrew notion of the colored people with whom they had contact in the Mediterranean basin was, quite naturally that those people were inferior to themselves, a consequence of their extreme ethnocentrism. 
Why did they not have something to say about the Japanese or Chinese or the American Indian? To me the answer is that they did not know these groups existed. But one can be pretty certain that if they had known about them, they would have developed some similar explanation regarding their origin to that concerning the Negro, and would have assigned them also to a position less exalted than their own. 
(4) And once these things got written down—institutionalized—they assume an aura of the sacred. I refer in this respect not only to the Scripture, but to more secular documents as well—the Constitution of the United States, for instance, which many people do not want to change regardless of the apparent needs. So we are in the position, it seems to me, of accepting a doctrine regarding the Negro which was enunciated by the Hebrews during a very early stage in their development. Moreover, and this is the important matter to me, it does not square with what seems an acceptable standard of justice today; nor with the letter or spirit of the teachings of Jesus Christ. I cannot find any support for such a doctrine of inequality in His recorded sayings. 
I am deeply troubled. Having decided through earnest study that one of the chief causes of war is the existence of ethnocentrism among the peoples of the world; that war is our major social evil which threatens to send all of us to destruction, and that we can ameliorate these feelings of ethnocentrism by promoting understanding of one people by others, I am now confronted with this doctrine of my own church which says in effect that white supremacy is part of God’s plan for His children, that the Negro has been assigned by Him to be a hewer of wood and drawer of water for his white-skinned brethren. This makes us nominal allies of the Rankins and the Bilbos of Mississippi, a quite unhappy alliance for me, I assure you. 
This doctrine pressed to its logical conclusion would say that Dr. George Washington Carver, the late eminent and saintly Negro scientist, is by virtue of the color of his skin inferior to the least admirable white person, not because of the virtues he may or may not possess, but because—through no fault of his—there is a dark pigment in his skin. All of the people in India—who are not Negroes according to ethnological authority, but are Aryan—would presumably come under the Negro classification. I think of the intelligent, high-minded, clean-living Hindu who was a member of the International Committee over which I had the honor to preside at Geneva from August 4 to 10, this year. He drank not, smoked not, his ethical standards were such that you and I could applaud him. Where should he rank vis-à-vis the least reliable and least admirable white person in Ferron? Or I could name you a real Negro with equal qualifications. 
Now, you say that the “social side of the Restored Gospel is only an incident of it; it is not the end thereof.” I may not have the same concept of “social” as you had in mind, but it seems to me the only virtue we can recognize in men is that expressed in their relations with others; that is, their “social” relations. Are the virtues of honesty, chastity, humility, forgiveness, tolerance, love, kindness, justice secondary? If so, what is primary? Love of God? Very Well. But the second (law) is like unto it. 
I must beg your forgiveness for this intrusion upon your time. I realize that I am only one among hundreds of thousands with whom you have to be concerned. My little troubles I must try to work out myself. But I desire to be understood. That’s why I have gone to such length to set down here the steps in my thinking. I am trying to be honest with myself and with others. I am trying to find my way in what is a very confused world. After seeing the devastation of Europe this summer, I am appalled by the sight of it, and the contemplation of what mankind can collectively do to himself unless somehow we, collectively—the human family—can put love of each other above hatred and somehow come to a mutual respect based upon understanding and a recognition that others, although they may be different from us, are not by that fact alone inferior. Are we becoming so legalistic (after the fashion of the Pharisees) that we cannot adjust our institutions to the changing need of mankind? Are we, as some have charged, more Hebraic than Christian? 
Sincerely your brother, 
(signed) Lowry Nelson, Professor of Sociology LN:ed

Dr. Lowry Nelson
University of Minnesota
Department of Agriculture
University Farm
St. Paul 1, Minnesota 
November 12, 1947 
Dear Brother Nelson: 
We have your letter of October 8 in further development of the matter discussed in your earlier letter. 
We feel very sure that you understand well the doctrines of the Church. They are either true or not true. Our testimony is that they are true. Under these circumstances we may not permit ourselves to be too much impressed by the reasonings of men however well-founded they may seem to be. We should like to say this to you in all kindness and in all sincerity that you are too fine a man to permit yourself to be led off from the principles of the Gospel by worldly learning. You have too much of a potentiality for doing good and we therefore prayerfully hope that you can reorient your thinking and bring it in line with the revealed word of God. 
Faithfully yours,
(Signed) G. Albert Smith

I showed this correspondence to some friends, perhaps three or four all told. They wanted copies and I gave them to them. In a short time I began receiving letters from persons in various parts of the country saying they had obtained a copy and congratulating me. I do not recall getting an unfavorable comment. I really began to feel some guilt for having released the letters to friends without permission of the First Presidency. Especially when it became apparent that the sub-rosa circulation was so widespread. But, after all, there was no secret about the doctrine, except for those who like myself were uninformed that the dogma was fixed. Kimball Young wrote me that he was surprised that I didn’t know the doctrine was in force. But, unlike Kimball, I had never served a mission for the Church, and certainly missionaries must be instructed on the matter before they leave.

In any case, I had decided to dismiss the matter and do nothing more about it. Then, in 1952, a friend in Salt Lake City, sent me a clipping from the Church Section of the Deseret News that set me off again. The story had to do with two missionaries in South Africa who were asked by a woman church member on her deathbed to do her “work” in the Temple when the boys returned to Salt Lake. Since she lived in that part of the world, the men had to make sure that her blood was not “tainted” before they could proceed to gratify her dying wish. The story recounts their search for her genealogy and their happy discovery that she was born in Holland. So the lady’s request was granted and photos of the men with their wives appeared with the story, all rejoicing.

I was disgusted and sat down and wrote an article entitled “Mormons and the Negro” and sent it to the Nation magazine. It was published in May 1952. For the first time, this policy was out in cold print for the world to see. The Negro press was alerted and the story was widely published. Some of my friends were rather shocked, even disappointed, that I had published it. Their reasoning was typical of Mormon liberals who always try to get things changed from within. But this had never worked out. Only when polygamy became a serious embarrassment to the church did it finally agree to stop the practice. The Church at that time was suffering from what today would be called a tarnished image. It was unable to obtain statehood for Utah because of the practice, although Utah had long since met the usual requirements for this. I figured there would never be any change in the Negro policy until the facts were widely known and pressure could be brought to bear from without as well as from within.

Pressures there were, both by blacks and by their white sympathizers. The Brigham Young University athletic teams were subjected to demonstrations wherever they appeared. Stanford University severed athletic relations with BYU. However, nothing happened for a long time. The Church leaders evaded any pressure for change by saying they were “waiting for the Lord to speak”—that is, for a “revelation.” In addition to increasing pressures on the Church from the outside, agitation for the change of Church policy by liberals from within continued, resulting in numerous excommunications, until, in 1978, Prophet Spencer W. Kimball announced a new revelation granting the Priesthood to blacks.