Articles by

matt b.

Book Review: Harvard S. Heath, ed., CONFIDENCE AMID CHANGE: THE PRESIDENTIAL DIARIES OF DAVID O. MCKAY, 1951-1970 (Signature, 2019)

By January 18, 2019


Harvard Heath tells us in the introduction to his edited selections from the David O. McKay diaries that the complete diaries run some 40,000 pages long, about 15,000 pages of which are dated entries. The volume he produced here comprises, he estimates, about ten percent of those dated entries. He also includes a very few selections from the hand of other authors, most prominently Alvin Dyer. The McKay diary, of course, is as much a production of McKay’s longtime secretary Clare Middlemiss as of McKay himself; a fair number of its entries are in her voice, and much of the rest McKay dictated to her for transcription.

We thus owe Middlemiss a great debt, and historians might be further grateful that she left a copy of it to her nephew W. Robert Wright, who in turn donated it to the University of Utah. It’s that copy from which this volume has been assembled.

Heath chose, as he says, to emphasize “history, doctrine and entries showing the president’s administrative style.” (xiv)  This, of course, means that a historian interested in the full range of McKay’s presidency will want to slog through all 40,000 pages; though it would have been of course impossible to include all those entries here, the historian in me worries about what I might be missing. Nonetheless, the excerpts Heath has provided here are extremely valuable in their own right, and he deserves plaudits for making them accessible.

To the diaries themselves, and what they might reveal about the workings of Mormon leadership within the McKay administration. Heath points out in his introduction that McKay was something of a “bridge between centuries, with one eye on the future and another on the past.” (x) This is an apt description of the man who emerges in these pages. McKay seems to me a man blessed with an essentially generous, tolerant and open-hearted personality nonetheless rooted in the essentially parochial and conservative instincts of a late nineteenth century upbringing. He was refined and compassionate, easily touched by the needs of the marginalized (as witnessed by his repeated worries, shared with his counselors, that young Black boys would be embarrassed when their white friends received the priesthood while they themselves did not (452)—a concern that he nonetheless was reluctant to rectify). He wanted the Church to open and operate retirement homes for the indigent elderly. Yet at the same time he was comfortable dealing with presidents; his diaries record meetings with every president who served while McKay was in office. (McKay was most impressed with Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson; least with John F. Kennedy, whom he seems to have found callow—though, as on page 400, the gracious McKay consistently sent Kennedy his best wishes.)  

And yet, as noted in the aside above, McKay retained the suspicions and prejudices of his youth throughout his life. I was somewhat surprised by his consistently expressed hostility to Roman Catholicism, for instance. In these pages he names Roman Catholicism one of the two great threats to the LDS church, along with Communism; he accuses Roman Catholics of formulating conspiracies to undermine the strength of the LDS church in Utah; he states that the cross is an “outward” sign of ritualistic religion. On similar grounds he is dismayed when Minerva Teichert adds the hint of a halo to Christ in her artwork. (96, 196, 173) While his counselors Hugh B. Brown and N. Eldon Tanner muse that perhaps men of African descent might be given the Aaronic priesthood, McKay worries that establishing church units in Nigeria would encourage young Nigerian men to come to BYU and hence foster interracial marriage. (404-5) He is certain that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, and scoffs at the “cowardly” United Nations for its refusal to mention God in its charter. (15)

McKay at the same time maintained a courtliness and temperateness that begins to feel archaic even in the pages of the diary, as fewer and fewer of his comrades seem to share these values over time. These things gave him the charisma for which he is noted. They also stiffed his spine when it came to those things he regarded as gauche or inappropriate. He shared many of Ezra Taft Benson’s right wing political sensibilities; the diary clearly reveals that McKay was a conservative Republican with a suspicion of communism notable even for the mid-twentieth century. More, Benson was extraordinarily persistent with McKay, nagging the church president again and again for permission to deliver political speeches, to campaign for president or vice president on a third party ticket, to get more involved with the John Birch Society. Sometimes Benson asked for forgiveness rather than permission, and sometimes McKay turned a blind eye to Benson’s activities. But he could be firm when he wanted to be.  When the conservative segregationist George Wallace asked Benson to join him on a third party ticket for the presidency in 1968, McKay, at that point ninety-four and ailing, ordered Benson flatly “You should turn the offer down.” (742)  When Benson asked for permission to john the Birch council, McKay rejected him. (689)  McKay also went out of his way to make it clear that members of the Church could vote or serve in office as Democrats, ensuring that prominent Mormon Democrats did not feel alienated from the Church. This was critical for McKay, whose imperative toward comity and warmth was the truest expression of his Mormonism.

In his valuable history of Mormon leadership in McKay’s administration, Gregory Prince notes that McKay’s conciliatory personality led him to often be persuaded by whomever was last in his office. That tendency seems most pronounced toward the end of his life, when his ailments noticeably slowed him down. (The best example here is the comedy of errors surrounding Benson’s efforts to get a portrait of McKay on the cover of the magazine of the John Birch Society (640-644); McKay is talked into it by Benson and out of it by Mark E. Petersen, who is angry at Benson for suggesting the idea. Then Benson talks McKay into it again and back out by Petersen, and eventually the Church threatens to sue if the image is used.  Another is Bruce R. McConkie’s ability to persuade McKay to authorize republication of Mormon Doctrine, which a few years earlier McKay had stated should not be republished, on grounds as much related to the book’s stentorian tone, which the broad-minded McKay disliked, as to its doctrinal statements. (663))

McKay’s affability, though, also illustrates his essential vision of the Church as a warm community of people much like McKay himself.  The hominess of this vision contributes to his worry about the ability of Nigerians and other Africans to successfully integrate into it. It is also illustrated in the sentiment he feels toward his closest associates. Frequently throughout the diaries he gathers his closest advisors around him and weeps as he professes gratitude for their kindness and love. (as on 13)  He makes Joseph Fielding Smith a counselor in his First Presidency after a long night of swapping stories and memories of their long service together. (619) Near his death he begs Middlemiss to never leave his side. (748) He gathered talented people to him—Hugh Brown, Stephen Richards, Middlemiss, Mark Garff—and their loyalty evidenced his leadership abilities.

This sentiment also meant that McKay was manifestly uncomfortable with the growth and bureaucratization of the church over which he presided. He frequently urged General Authorities to avoid using administrators and secretaries to do their work, telling them that “personal work” required their own involvement. (29)  He repeatedly urged the Quorum of the Twelve to seek agreement and unity. He reluctantly went along with the creation of a new layer of ecclesiastical bureaucrats—Area Authorities—but worried that they would contribute to greater distance between the leadership and laity of the church.

By the end of his life, somewhat ironically, McKay was incapacitated enough that his diary entries have become largely records of those other leaders—Brown, Garff, Joseph Fielding Smith, Middlemiss—presenting him with ideas which he gave pro forma approval to. The community of leaders he had assembled around himself and trusted deeply were capable, but they were also birthing a new church, one far more expansive, globalized, diverse, and administrative than McKay was comfortable with. Yet it was perhaps his gift to allow such a thing, so against his own sentiments, to emerge.


“Male and Female: A Proclamation.” Three Points From the History and Sociology of Religion

By January 14, 2019


It appears that a person or persons unknown have been circulating a document in at least one ward building in Utah. Entitled “Male and Female: A Proclamation,” the document repudiates recent alterations to the language of the various temple ceremonies, particularly the endowment and the sealing rituals. The document particularly targets those alterations made to language about gender. It’s been widely reported that these alterations move the ceremony toward greater gender egalitarianism.

https://scontent.ftul1-1.fna.fbcdn.net/v/t1.0-9/49855664_10157138108761520_408622518526541824_n.jpg?_nc_cat=104&_nc_ht=scontent.ftul1-1.fna&oh=1ed6a74c9520c6418565ff6bcd41dfc7&oe=5CC73501
This document was left in the lobby of an LDS chapel in South Jordan, Utah.



There are a number of points which could be made about 1) the alterations themselves, and 2) this document, but I want to restrict myself to three.

First: perhaps the primary word the document uses to describe gender relations is “submission.”  It argues that “worldly understandings of equality are completely contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ . . . this pattern of humble submission applies to and reflects the eternal nature, relationship, and order between male and female, and between God, husband, wife and children.” It also uses New Testament language about “heads,” arguing that mean are placed in authority over women.

This is interesting language insofar as it is far more common in recent American evangelical discourse than it is in LDS discourse.[1] As is sometimes said of Mormons, there are perhaps as many versions of evangelical theology as there are evangelicals. Some evangelicals, however, advocate “complementarian” theology, which maintains that men and women are irreducibly different and hence interprets marriage as creation of a wholeness greater than the two parts separately. This is not language unfamiliar to Mormons, though the word “complementarian” is far more common among evangelicals than it is in the LDS church.

Some complementarians, further, emphasize the concept of “headship,” as derived from the pastoral letters of the New Testament (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, and sometimes Ephesians). As they interpret it, “headship” means that women are equal before God, but that men are to hold “headship” over women. Where exactly this “headship” applies is a matter for debate: some evangelicals would say only in the home; others would say it applies everywhere.

Further, some headship complementarians draw on the New Testament language of submission. If a man’s role is “head,” they argue, than a woman’s role is to “submit.” What exactly “submission” means is up for debate. Some evangelicals have argued that it means that women should not seek to alter their husbands and should submit to his will, arguing, as does “Male and Female,” that Christ’s submission to his Father’s will is the necessary model. They argue that the natural differences between men and women make such a relationship the most successful. Others argue that there is no natural hierarchy between men and women, but that God intends for women to voluntarily submit. Other complementarians who define headship more narrowly argue for “mutual submission” between husband and wife.  

That this document draws on this language, which, as I’ve said, is not common in LDS discourse, indicates its authors have some familiarity with contemporary evangelical discourse about gender. As J. Stapley notes, Colleen McDannell’s recent Sister Saints (Oxford, 2018) points out that the LDS church has been pulling away from the sort of detailed and explicit language about patriarchy as complementarian and headship rhetoric embrace.

Second: This document advocates a primitivist vision of Mormonism.  Primitivism is hardly an uncommon rhetoric at work in the broad sweep of Mormon history; nor it is uncommon in Christian history more generally. Primitivists believe that truth was once present on the earth (in many possible forms; some primitivists cite an ideal church, some a perfect scripture, some perfect authority) but has been corrupted and hence requires renewal and revitalization. They tend to view change as destructive. This document makes that argument with reference to the temple endowment ceremonies, arguing that the words of the endowment “were correctly revealed in sacred temple ordinances to the prophet Joseph Smith Jr,” and that the endowment ceremony contained the “words spoken by the mouths of The Father, The Son, Adam and Eve” before these changes. This is an unprovable claim, in part because no written record of the endowment ceremony as Joseph Smith originally instituted it exists (the ceremony was transmitted orally for decades). But it is a theological claim which draws upon the primitivist impulse.

What scholars call the “church-sect” typology is common in the sociology of religion. It argues to radically oversimplify that a “church” is a religious group comfortable in the society in which it finds itself; a “sect,” conversely, is a group at odds with its surrounding world. Sociologist Armand Mauss has famously argued that the LDS church has cycled back and forth along the church-sect spectrum throughout its history.[2] Many Mormon fundamentalist groups which separated from the modern LDS church can thus easily be read as sects discontented with the LDS church’s decisions that have propelled it toward church-dom. Most famously, of course, many such groups abandoned the LDS church in reaction to the end of polygamy.

Less famously, but equally compelling in this case, was fundamentalist Joseph Jensen’s famous Salt Lake Tribune advertisement denouncing Spencer W. Kimball’s decision to end the racially based restrictions on priesthood ordination and temple worship in 1978. As does “Male and Female,” this document invokes primitivist arguments that the LDS church was abandoning its scripture, the intent of its founders, and so on. As does “Male and Female,” Jensen’s argument maintained that contemporary LDS leaders were seeking the approval of “the world,” classic sect language lambasting churches, sociologically speaking.

Third: The material culture of “Male and Female” is fascinating. It apes popular versions of the church’s famous 1990s proclamations “The Family” and “The Living Christ” sold in church outlets like Deseret Book in font, in layout, and in design. This indicates, I think, something I’ve argued elsewhere: the extent to which contemporary Mormon piety is deeply marked by the aesthetics of the white American middle class—so much so that the author(s) of “Male and Female” see such design and layout as a signal of spiritual authority.

In total, “Male and Female” may (and likely, will) have very little impact on the course of the LDS church generally. Indeed, its authors may already be part of a fundamentalist group. Regardless, the document reflects significant trends in American religious history generally and Mormon history in particular.

[1] Some recent examples I found useful include R. Marie Griffith, God’s Daughters: Evangelical Women and the Power of Submission (UNC, 1997) Alan Padgett, As Christ Submits to the Church: A Biblical Understanding of Leadership and Mutual Submission (Baker, 2011); Mark and Grace Driscoll, Real Marriage: The Truth about Sex, Friendship and Life Together (Thomas Nelson, 2012), and Stanley Grenz and Denise Muir Kjesbo, Women in the Church (Intervarsity, 2010).

[2] Armand Mauss, The Angel and the Beehive: the Mormon Struggle with Assimilation (Illinois, 1994).


Summer Book Club: On Zion’s Mount, chapter 4

By July 19, 2018


This is the fourth installment in the JI’s fourth annual summer book club. This year we are reading Jared Farmer’s On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape (Harvard UP, 2008). You can view previous installments herehere, here and here. Check back every Thursday for the week’s installment. Please follow the JI on your social media of choice.

We have in the previous few chapter reviews followed the major theme of the first section of Farmer’s book: the dominance of lakes in the minds, hearts, and stomachs of the early Mormon colonists in the eastern edge of the Great Basin. The lake was a source of fish and conflict, just as the Great Salt Lake was a center of both recreation and source of holiness, as its tributaries were used for baptism and bathing. But in the late nineteenth century, Farmer argues, the lakes of the Mormons’ valleys began to be culturally displaced by mountains.

Part of this displacement was drive by necessity: overfishing and irrigation and conflict and pollution sapped the value of the lakes. It was also abetted by culture; the fictive memory of a desert valley allowed the Saints to imagine themselves as fulfillers of Isaianic prophecy. But, for the purposes of chapter 4, the shift matters because it cleared the way for the rise of mountains in Mormon culture.

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Scholarly Inquiry: W. Paul Reeve, A Century of Black Mormons Project

By June 29, 2018


W. Paul Reeve is Simmons Professor of Mormon Studies at the University of Utah. He directs the digital history project “Century of Black Mormons.”

This weekend the University will sponsor “Black, White and Mormon II,” the second conference on race in the modern LDS Church the University’s Mormon Studies initiative has sponsored.  We approached Reeve with a number of questions about the “Century of Black Mormons” project.

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Review: Bergera, ed., CONFESSIONS OF A MORMON HISTORIAN: THE DIARIES OF LEONARD J. ARRINGTON (Signature Books, 2018)

By May 21, 2018


Leonard Arrington loved people. “From as early as I can remember, I had a positive attitude toward people,” he wrote several years into his retirement. (3:645) Elsewhere he mused that had he not ended up a historian, “I would have been drawn into politics and would have done well, I think.” (3:133) Arrington was a handshaker and a backslapper, a gossip and a bearer of Christmas gifts. He was an extrovert, an inveterate socializer (out of the house four or five nights a week, some weeks, driven forward by a positive starvation for conversation that seems to have exhausted his wife Grace at times), and a manager loved by his subordinates for his care and supportiveness, if not his bureaucratic acumen.

Arrington’s delight in and longing for community was not simply a matter of temperament. It was a matter of theology. It was his Mormonism. That is not, of course, normally the theme his story is given. The diaries certainly document the better-known story; the fascinating account of Arrington’s service in what is variously called the Church Historian’s Office or Church History Division of the church’s Historical Department (a larger bureaucratic umbrella that also included the church’s archives and the department operating the church’s historic sites). Arrington’s appointment, initiated by First Presidency member N. Eldon Tanner with the support of church presidents Joseph Fielding Smith and Harold B. Lee and Spencer W. Kimball, came with a new mandate. Arrington and his staff were to research and publish material on the history of the Latter-day Saints. As his ten years in the job went on, the jovial Arrington was baffled when he found his work increasingly criticized, his office monitored, his subordinates questioned and their publications scrutinized for reasons he could never quite understand.

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Ministering, Home Teaching, and Visiting Teaching

By April 6, 2018


?Home teaching has been described as the pivot around which all other church activities are to be correlated.?

  • Marion G. Romney, ?Church Correlation: Address to Seminary and Institute Faculty,? June 22, 1964. Church History Library and Archives.

For a hundred years, the practice of what was first called ?ward teaching? and later ?home teaching? saw two Mormon men visit families in their congregation, carrying to them a message from church leadership and reporting back on any needs they found. ?Visiting teaching,? for decades after the founding of the Relief Society in 1842, saw women of the Relief Society engage in a similar practice.

It is hard to underestimate the importance of home teaching to the initial vision of the framers of the Mormon correlation movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Exploring the reasons for its importance shed some light on the announcement at the church?s General Conference this past weekend that home and visiting teaching are to be replaced with ?ministering.?

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Series Preview: Introductions to Mormon Thought (University of Illinois Press)

By April 3, 2018


A few months ago I had lunch with Joseph Spencer, a professor of ancient scripture at BYU and author of a number of books on Mormon theology and scripture. Our conversation there led us to what has been formally announced: a new book series, titled Introductions to Mormon Thought, which the University of Illinois Press will be publishing in coming years. Below, a description that Joe and I have worked up.

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Review: Mueller, Race and the Making of the Mormon People (University of North Carolina, 2017)

By November 27, 2017


On the surface, Max Perry Mueller?s book is, like several other recent works, a study of the shifting racialist ideas in nineteenth century Mormonism. Like those books, Mueller argues that early Mormonism is a particularly useful illustration of the fluidity of race, particularly in the early decades of the United States. When, as Mueller argues, white Americans began in the nineteenth century to understand ?race as (secular) biology,? (12) they began arguing that those characteristics they used to classify and label ?races? were organic, functions of one?s biological makeup, and though these characteristics extended from the merely physical (like skin color) to issues of intellect and temperament, most people determined them to be inborn and hence immutable.

 

The Mormons, Mueller argues, were different, in two ways.

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Scholarly Inquiry: A Conversation with Stephen C. Taysom, II

By September 19, 2017


Eighteen months ago, Taysom was deep into work on a biography of Joseph F. Smith, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1901 to 1918. We interviewed him then about the project. Taysom recently finished work on the manuscript, and we decided to follow up to see how the project evolved over that period and what Taysom’s reflections in retrospect are.

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JI Summer Book Club 2017, II: A House Full of Females, Chapter 1

By May 14, 2017


Though it’s not in this chapter, If I were to pull a sentence from Ulrich?s book that I feel summarizes her project, it?s this: ?Well before plural marriage became a recognized practice in the Church, these women had learned to value bonds of faith over biological or regional connections.? (xv)

When Phebe Carter Woodruff sent her husband Wilford off to serve a mission in the British Isles, she secured a small poem in his luggage. ?While onward he his footsteps bend / May he find Mothers, and kind friends,? the lines ran. (38)

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Recent Comments

wvs on Book Review: Harvard S.: “Thanks Matt. The possible filtering through Middlemiss and the material that didn’t make the cut are factors. Nevertheless a vitally important volume. Thanks to Signature…”


Gary Bergera on Book Review: Harvard S.: “J, That's a great question. From my reading of the diaries, I think (but could easily be wrong) that Middlemiss becomes an increasing presence…”


J. Stapley on Book Review: Harvard S.: “Thanks Matt. My biggest questions around this document is the voice of Middlemiss. My hunch is that she is writing in McKay's voice more…”


Terry H on Book Review: Harvard S.: “Great review Matt. Thanks for this. I'll be looking for it. It appears a Kindle is available on the 29th of January.…”


Saskia on Sister Saints: Pain, Feminism,: “I find it frustrating beyond measure that we still see women's history (or women's anything, actually) as something different, something not-male and thus not universal,…”


Saskia on Sister Saints: Sources and: “To continue on Joey's point, this book comes at a really good time (also a dizzying time, with all the changes). I have done a…”

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