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.

1 comment:

Cami said...

A while ago I read an article by Michael Quinn regarding an abbreviated history of church finances. If memory serves me it indictated that Heber J. Grant borrowed $50,000 from church tithing funds and later "paid" it back with some stock that wasn't worth much. Since what I knew of President Grant was a sanitized version my reaction was a prophet wouldn't do that. After reading this excerpt I think it very possible the restoration of all things includes the lusting after mammon as if that needed to be restored. Thank you for the insight.