The Eagle Scout in General Conference

By May 11, 2018

On Tuesday the Church Newsroom announced a “Plan for Worldwide Initiative for Children and Youth” that will change, among other things, Personal Progress and the Church’s relationship to Scouting. Yesterday I wrote about mentions of the Personal Progress program in General Conference. Today I look at mentions of the Eagle Scout award.

[Edit: Due to a very embarrassing error on my part, I only searched from 1940 to the present. There were two mentions of Eagle Scouts before 1950: In 1924 then-President Heber J Grant quoted approvingly a letter published in the Improvement Era that enthused at some length about Mormon scouting and included the line “There are more boys of advanced rank and a greater percentage of Eagle scouts than in any other section of America” (1924 April, p 155). In 1923 Apostle Richard R Lyman said, in a talk on training young people, “You cannot know what real scouting is until you have at least one Eagle Scout in your troop” (1923 April, p 157).]

I found 23 talks with explicit references to the Eagle award. All of the speakers were male; 12 of the talks were in general sessions, 10 were in men’s sessions, and 1 was in a women’s session. The earliest explicit mention of the Eagle was in 1950. Discussions of scouting in general, not analyzed here, are more pervasive, with references almost as far back as the start of the scouting movement in the early 1900s.

There are fewer direct exhortations to earn an Eagle than I expected. The most clear is Ezra T Benson in 1986: “Become an Eagle Scout. Do not settle for mediocrity in the great Scouting program of the Church.” Later in the same talk he claims:

Give me a young man who has kept himself morally clean and has faithfully attended his Church meetings. Give me a young man who has magnified his priesthood and has earned the Duty to God Award and is an Eagle Scout. Give me a young man who is a seminary graduate and has a burning testimony of the Book of Mormon. Give me such a young man, and I will give you a young man who can perform miracles for the Lord in the mission field and throughout his life. [1]

Benson’s “give me a young man…” paragraph was quoted approvingly in 2010. [2] A letter from the First Presidency and the Twelve in September 2001 (quoted in October conference) is less direct, focusing on the effort rather than the outcome: “We desire all young men to strive to earn the Eagle Scout and Duty to God Awards. We desire all young women to strive to earn the Young Womanhood Recognition.” [3]

To say that there were fewer direct exhortations than I expected does not mean that General Conference discourse has not sent a strong normative message about earning the Eagle. One of the ways it has done it is to include stories about now-dead young men who had earned or wanted to have earned it. For examples: “Because John was unable to realize his dream of becoming an Eagle Scout, the priests raised money to buy a special achievement plaque….” [4] “Jason received the Aaronic Priesthood at age 12 and “always willingly magnified his responsibilities with excellence, whether he felt well or not.” He received his Eagle Scout Award when he was 14 years old.” [5]

Sometimes, the Eagle and a mission are all we are told about a young man. In 2001: “When my oldest son became a deacon and an Eagle Scout, a picture of an eagle came to my mind as I thought of him and his future.” [6] In 1972, a speaker introduced his family:

And I have five sons. Two of them are on missions…. Both of these boys are Eagle Scouts, and they both… are striving with all their might to serve the Lord in their mission calls. I have two other boys at home… who are also Eagle Scouts, and we are very proud of them, and they are following and being obedient as they should be. [7]

The Eagle in these instances is used as a proxy for virtue, though sometimes the connection isn’t quite as obvious to this reader: “Having earned my Eagle Scout Award, I was a pretty confident swimmer….” [8]

Since Eagles are virtuous, a fairly common use of the Eagle was as a proxy for successful teaching / ministry. Thus, in 1976, after describing a dedicated teacher / scoutmaster: “That year twenty-one boys achieved the rank of Eagle Scout in Glen’s troop. Impact teachers do not teach lessons, they teach souls.” [9] Again in 2000: “Without exception, every one of C. Perry Erickson’s Scouts received an Eagle award.” [10] Similarly, Eagle sons are evidence that a “ward family” had “rallied around” a single mother of four boys [11] and that “mothers who sacrificed to remain home for their children’s benefit” had, indeed, benefitted those children and the children had become excellent missionaries. [12]

As an extension of its perceived virtue, the Eagle could also function as a proxy for respectability. For example, in 1972, a speaker provides a list of facts about Mormon organizations and participation and asks “Could religious extremism produce a series of results like these? In no sense are our men and women carried away with emotionalism. They are practical, down-to-earth, well-balanced people of sound judgment.” One of the evidences he adduces is that:

“Latter-day Saints are among the leaders of the Boy Scout movement internationally. It was a Mormon Eagle Scout who represented the six million Scouts of the United States a few weeks ago in presenting to President Nixon the membership card showing him to be honorary president of the Boy Scouts of America for 1972.” [13]

In retrospect, one wonders exactly how respectable it was to give a membership card to Nixon in 1972, but for many Americans of the time, it seems like it was. The same speaker used a similar approach three years later with a list of facts, including: “In the United States, 1.5 percent of the registered Scouts obtain their Eagle award. Among the Latter-day Saints it is 4 percent.” [14]

Sometimes the Eagle was presented as not necessarily a virtue in its own right but as merely a pragmatic tool to promote missionary service: “…Scouting provides a tested, proven program for us to use in holding our young men close to the Church. … For some reason there is a direct correlation between young men who achieve the Eagle rank and those who serve missions.” [15] Similarly: “…my dad… accepted the call to serve as my Scoutmaster. He operated by the book, and due to his diligence, some of my friends and I became Eagle Scouts. I realize now that Scouting is great preparation for a mission.” [16] A 1982 non-general-authority spent paragraphs emphasizing the importance of the Eagle path as a way to encourage the participation of young men and to promote missionary service, encouraging “a tradition of Eagles,” and culminating in the line that, in his ward, “The lists of Eagles and missionaries almost read the same.” [17]

The one explicit mention in a women’s session came in President Benson’s 1986 talk addressed to Young Women that paralleled the ‘Give me a young man’ talk from the conference six months earlier. After urging the young women’s Bishops (who, in general, were not expected to be in attendance that night) to “give as much attention to” and to “be as concerned about” the Young Women as the Young Men, Benson said that the Bishops should “Recognize with equal prominence the presentation of the Young Womanhood Recognition Award as you do the awarding of the Duty to God Award and Eagle Scout badge.” [18]

To round out the mentions: the earliest, in 1950, saw scouting as a vocational and recreational program; the speaker cited his own sons’ Eagle awards as evidence of the speakers awareness of the value of the scouting program. This citation is also interesting in its emphasis on how scouting helps take up “the leisure time of our boys,” which was a pressing concern across middle America in the 1950s. [19] A 2001 talk also saw career value in the Eagle: “You may be selected for training not because of some extraordinary achievement or great thing, but because you got your Eagle Scout Award, your Duty to God Award, graduated from seminary, or served a mission.” [20] A 1962 mention uses the Eagle as a marker of aspirational virtue when some young men caught vandalizing street lights “recognized their acts as unbecoming Eagle Scouts and with a true feeling of remorse went to the power company to relate their transgression and offered to make restitution by paying for the lights.” [21] Also in 2001, it seems there was a concern about the Eagle competing with other programs (including the recently revamped Duty to God) and the speaker averred that “Achieving the Duty to God and Eagle Scout Awards [or similar awards] are complementary, not competitive.”

As for overarching patterns, I have only one observation: the Eagle could fit into Armand Mauss’s Angel and Beehive assimilation model, wherein a religious minority must maintain optimal tension between itself and the host culture. In the 50s through 80s it was a symbol of virtue and respectability that helped Mormonism “draw nearer to the Beehive”—partially assimilate to mainstream values and behaviors. As the Eagle has cachet in broader American culture (and as Mormonism has expanded beyond a strictly American focus) the utility of the tool has faded.

 

————————— 

[1] Ezra Taft Benson (President), “To the ‘Youth of the Noble Birthright’,” Ensign 1986 April p 43.

[2] L Tom Perry (Quorum of the Twelve Apostles), “The Priesthood of Aaron,” Ensign 2010 October, p 91.

[3] First Presidency letter, 2001 Sep 28, as quoted in Robert D Hales (Quorum of the Twelve Apostles), “Fulfilling Our Duty to God,” Ensign 2001 October, p 38.

[4] J Richard Clarke (Presidency of the Seventy), “To Honor the Priesthood,” Ensign 1991 April, p 41.

[5] Thomas S. Monson (President), “He Is Risen!” Ensign 2010 April, p 87.

[6] Henry B Eyring (First Counselor in the First Presidency), “Help Them Aim High,” Ensign 2012 p 57.

[7] Vaughn J Featherstone (Presiding Bishopric), “A Challenge to the Priesthood”, Ensign 1972 April, p 45.

[8] John H Groberg (Presidency of the Seventy), “The Power of God’s Love,” Ensign October 2004, p 9.

[9] Vaughn J. Featherstone (First Quorum of the Seventy), “The Impact Teacher,” Ensign, 1976 October, p 103.

[10] Joseph B Wirthlin (Quorum of the Twelve Apostles), “Pure Testimony,” Ensign 2000 October, p 22.

[11] Gordon B Hinckley (President), “Women of the Church,” Ensign 1996 October, p 67.

[12] Richard G Scott (Quorum of the Twelve Apostles), “The Power of Correct Principles,” Ensign 1993 April, p 32.

[13] Mark E. Petersen (Council of the Twelve), “A People of Sound Judgment”, Ensign, 1972 April, p 40. Among others, he also cited: “We have still another organization for younger women and teenage girls, which has a membership of some 400,000 devoted to the betterment of girls of that age. Its president, Mrs. Florence S. Jacobsen, has served also as a United States delegate to meetings of the World Council of Women.”

[14] Mark E. Petersen (Council of the Twelve), “Hear Ye Him!,” Ensign, 1975 October, p 63.

[15] Robert L. Backman (First Quorum of the Seventy), “Revitalizing Aaronic Priesthood Quorums,” Ensign 1982 October, p 38.

[16] Daryl H Garn (Of the Seventy), “Preparing for Missionary Service,” Ensign 2003 April, p 46.

[17] C. Frederick Pingel (Bishop, Beavercreek Ward, Dayton Ohio East Stake), “Activating Young Men of the Aaronic Priesthood,” Ensign 1982 October, p 35.

[18] Ezra Taft Benson (President), “To the Young Women of the Church,” Ensign 1986 October, p 81.

[19] Joseph L. Wirthlin (First Counselor in the Presiding Bishopric), “Be Thou an Example,” Conference Report, October 1950, pp. 17-23.

[20] James E Faust (Second Counselor in the First Presidency), “Some Great Thing,” Ensign 2001 October, p 46.

[21] William J. Critchlow, Jr. (Assistant to the Council of the Twelve Apostles), “Repentance—Spelled with 7 R’s,” Conference Report, April 1962, pp. 36-39.

[22] Cecil O Samuelson, Jr (Presidency of the Seventy), “Our Duty to God,” Ensign 2001 October, p 41.

Article filed under Cultural History Current Events Digital Humanities Material Culture Miscellaneous Open Access Popular Culture Women's History


Comments

  1. Perhaps the path Pres. Benson (footnote 1) prescribed (Eagle, seminary graduate, mission, temple marriage) created lifelong members in the 1980s, but not anymore.

    Every reader of this blog probably has several (many?) friends who followed that path in their youth and have now lost their testimony and/or left the Church.

    It’s time for a new path.

    Comment by The Other Clark — May 14, 2018 @ 12:38 pm


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