Matters of Conscience
Sterling M. McMurrin and L. Jackson Newell
Growing Up Moss and McMurrin
[p. 1] Newell: Sterling, you describe yourself as having been both a city kid and a ranch kid. How so?
McMurrin: Well, my father, Joseph W. McMurrin, Jr., was from the city, and my mother, Gertrude Moss McMurrin, was from the country, and from the time of my birth in 1914 until I was in college, I lived part of the year in the city going to school and part of the year—summers, often encroaching upon school time in both spring and fall—I lived on a ranch associating with sheep, cattle, and horses.
So you led a double life?
That’s right. It was a double life. And I’ve never entirely outgrown it. My father was very much an urban person. My three brothers and I—no sisters—were like my mother, at home in both city and country.
What city was that?
Ogden, Utah, in my very early years, and then Los Angeles—in its better days. My father was a teacher at Ogden High School—completely an urban man, as I said. In the late twenties our family moved to Los Angeles, where he was a probation supervisor, first for the state of California and later for Los Angeles County.
Then the ranch belonged to your mother’s people?
My mother’s father, William Moss, and his father were the chief founders of the Deseret Live Stock Company, a huge ranching operation—the largest in this part of the country. It was founded in 1891 and embraced a considerable number of large ranches. Except for a very short time when he was on an LDS mission in England, my grandfather was the general manager of the company until just before he died in 1933 at the age of seventy-eight. The central or home ranch is now owned by the LDS church.1 It was an enormous sheep and cattle[p.2] operation, and that’s where I was reared during the summer season every year until I was twenty. The “home ranch” was really home to me—and still is.
What did you take from those years on the ranch? What effect did they have on your later life?
Experience like that keeps a person close to nature, close to the real world, in a way that urban life doesn’t. It taught me the lessons you learn only from really hard work. We all had to work from as early as I can remember—you know, kid’s work, but real work. When I was nine, I started to do ranch jobs for a few days at a time that would ordinarily be given to a man. When I was ten, it stepped up to a few more days at a stretch. Then when I was eleven, I was doing a man’s job full time. One of the benefits of that, of course, was that I got a man’s wages. It was two dollars a day plus room and board while I was nine and ten; but when I was eleven, I got the full ranch hand’s wage two-fifty a day. There I was, an eleven-year-old kid with a bank account. In those days a dollar would go a long way. If you wrote out a check for a dollar, it would last you about as long as a hundred dollars would last you today. I would accumulate well over a hundred dollars during a summer. That meant I could buy some new clothes in the fall and have some spending money for a bicycle, a baseball, or a ball mitt and funds for recreation until the next summer.
This work and pay made you partially self-sufficient, even at an early age. Can you characterize the life you had there or the work you were doing?
Well, as a kid, I was involved to a considerable extent in the sheep end of the Deseret Live Stock Company. Even a child can help to corral sheep and work with them and get dust in his hair and his eyes and mouth. Deseret Live Stock was heavily involved with sheep. At times it had eighty thousand head running in herds of 2,800 to 3,200. Sheep, in many ways, are more interesting than cattle—not as smart as cattle, but they have better memories. It was an exciting time for kids—shearing in the spring, then the fall drive when they’re separated, some being driven in herds to the winter ranges, others shipped off for sale.
The Live Stock’s winter range was in Skull Valley, Utah, where [p.3] there was a large ranch and extensive range land. The Deseret Live Stock Company purchased from the LDS church the town and holdings at Iosepa, after the church’s Skull Valley Polynesian colony was abandoned. The summer sheep range was over two hundred miles east in the Wasatch Mountains—the area known as Monte Cristo and Lost Creek. The shearing corral was a huge operation three miles west of the Wahsatch Station on the Union Pacific Railroad, about twelve miles this side of Evanston, Wyoming, at the head of Echo Canyon. I don’t know for sure how many people worked with the sheep at shearing time, probably about ninety altogether. There were twenty-two shearers with power-driven equipment. I doubt that even Australia or New Zealand had larger shearing operations than that. I understand that it was the largest in the United States.
Moving sheep all the way from Skull Valley up into the Monte Cristo country and back each summer was a major operation. I remember herding sheep along the south end of the Great Salt Lake, right through where the Salt Lake International Airport is now. This would have been during the early 1920s. There were a couple of small hangars there with two small biplanes in them. It was a rare thing to see an airplane in those days. We climbed up and looked in through the windows to see them.
I was never seriously involved with the sheep trailing, however, because by the time I got old enough to be really useful, most of the transportation was by rail from Skull Valley up to Wahsatch and return.
Did you work in other ranch operations as a teenager?
After age eleven, yes. It was on the cattle end of the operation—fixing fences, chasing stray cattle, wrangling horses, and especially putting up hay. The company had many thousands of acres of hay for winter feeding of cattle. I even worked on a surveying crew. The main cattle range was in Utah, running roughly from Echo up the Union Pacific Railroad to the Wyoming state line—even over it a little—but mostly running along the state line toward Woodruff, Utah, and then cutting back up into the mountains toward Ogden—an enormous operation. I don’t know how many acres the ranching operation covered, all told, but up there it went into five counties. The winter sheep range in Skull Valley and Cedar Mountain was also very extensive. I’ve heard estimates all the way from three-quarters of a million to a million acres, including grazing rights on public land. In some places the company owned every other section—like a checkerboard—so it was a much larger operation than simply the land owned outright. The company owned the sections [p.4] where there was water so that nobody else had any inclination to homestead the dry sections.
You’re talking about a huge business operation.
I don’t know much about the finances, but of course you’re right. The company acquired the land by accretion, a little like the movies where a big outfit takes over small outfits. When I rode through the range with my grandfather, he would often show me the remnants of ranches—remnants of ranch buildings after the sheepherders had trashed the buildings for firewood, tops of posts sticking out of the ground. I remember him saying on one occasion, “That’s where old Sutton had his ranch. These are the remains of his corrals.” Anyway, to make a long story short, that’s what I did and where I was much of the first twenty years of my life.
Sterling, were you close to your brothers during these years?
Oh yes, we were all in it together—brothers, cousins, uncles. Blaine and Keith are older and Harold is younger. We all followed the same pattern. Two or three people owned most of the stock in the Deseret Live Stock Company: mainly my grandfather and his cousin James H. Moyle. Of course, other relatives and friends bought in. My mother’s mother, Grace Ann Hatch Moss, had Hatch relatives who owned stock. Grandfather lived in Woods Cross, just north of Salt Lake in Davis County, and most of the stockholders were relatives and friends who lived in Davis County.
What did you learn growing up in two environments that were so completely different?
Well, living life on the ranch in the summer and in town in the winter I noticed that people reared in rural areas are more conservative in matters of morals than those in urban areas. Ranch kids didn’t use as much foul language. They were not so fascinated by violence and pornography. Of course in those days we had no TV, and the movies were in their infancy. The closest I ever came to pornography was the lingerie section of the Sears-Roebuck catalog, which was much tamer then than now. I was reared among ranch hands, some of whom had lived all over the country. There were occasional dirty songs; but by and large their language was cleaner than what one finds in many urban settings.
Did you miss much by being away from your school friends every summer?
By being up on the ranch all summer, I always had to pick up with my school friends again in the fall, if they were still around. We’d start playing sandlot baseball in the spring as soon as the mud dried, but [p.5] summers were when kids got really serious about baseball—played for hours at a time. I missed much of this. I was either gone or would go the very next day after school ended in the spring.
Your grandfathers were a study in contrast. Joseph W. McMurrin was a man of the cloth—a Mormon church authority, and William Moss was a man of affairs—an influential businessman. They must have made very different impressions on you.
Well, I was definitely closer to my Grandfather Moss, owing especially to those long summers on the ranch and frequent visits to his home in Woods Cross, where I was born. Grandfather McMurrin was a member of the First Council of the Seventy of the LDS church, one of the Seven Presidents of the Seventy.2 In those days these seven men had far more status than the present Seventy have in the leadership of the church. When I was five, my grandfather became president of the California Mission, which included California, Arizona, and Nevada, before there were local organizations in those states. California and Arizona especially were very important places for the church. He was president from 1919 until his health failed. He was released as mission president in 1931 or 1932 but stayed in California and died in Los Angeles a few months later. Except when I was very young, the only times I even saw him before we moved to California were when he returned to Salt Lake City for church conferences or other business. When he came to Ogden, it was very much like having a visiting church authority in our home.
When my grandfather was in Salt Lake City for meetings, my father would take me and the others with him to Salt Lake on the electric interurban line, the Bamberger, so we could hear Grandfather speak in general conference which was, then as always, held in early April and October. He would usually meet us afterward and take us over to the [p.6] Hotel Utah for lunch.
Do you have many personal memories of him?
Those conference talks made a great impression on me. Grandfather was a very powerful figure, a tremendous force in the Mormon church, and a very influential orator. Those were the days before microphones and loudspeakers, radio, and television. Oratory really counted for something, and my grandfather was a power. He would move the audience from tears to laughter. This doesn’t really happen anymore, you know; there simply aren’t people in the church now who understand the power of the spoken word and how to use it like my grandfather, B. H. Roberts, J. Golden Kimball, and others of that time. Conferences in the Mormon church in those days were really great, moving experiences.
A lot of the power came from the spontaneity of the speakers?
Of course it did. It’s hard not to feel manipulated by a text that someone sat down and prepared in cold blood, thinking about the effect it will have. But in those days before radio and television, it was all spontaneous—the speaker developing an idea as it came to him, the audience following along, their own eagerness and understanding inspiring the speaker and his own skills and power and the fresh emotion of the moment further captivating the audience. It would have been outrageous for a person to read his sermon or even to use notes. That just wasn’t done. The speaker was supposed to be moved by the Spirit; and if he wrote his stuff and read it, this would be an indication that the Spirit wasn’t in the picture. I mean that quite seriously.
And they were really moved in no uncertain terms, both speaker and congregation. The great oratory of these earlier years has been replaced by the boredom of prepared texts and teleprompters. There isn’t the powerful message and the tremendous emotional impact on the people that there once was.
So you knew your grandfather mainly as a public figure?
Yes, but I don’t want to imply that it was a distant or impersonal relationship. My Grandfather McMurrin would always send a dollar bill to each grandchild on his or her birthday. A dollar bill was a lot of money in those days. I’ll tell you a funny story. When I was in about the sixth grade, one of my teachers, who I presume was a Mormon—although it never occurred to me to even wonder whether my teachers were Mormons or not—told me that she would like me to write my term paper about my Grandfather McMurrin. I wrote to him about the assignment and asked him to send me information about his life. He [p.7] wrote back, included a dollar bill, and said, “This is for writing to me. You are the first grandchild who ever wrote me a letter.”
Your writing career received encouragement from the very beginning! How did the composition turn out?
He wrote, “I don’t think it’s a good idea to write about me because I’m not important enough for that, but there’s a young man visiting me who is important, and his name is John A. Widtsoe.”3 He gave me a lot of information about John A. Widtsoe, and I wrote my theme on him. He had recently been president of the University of Utah and was then a brand new apostle. Despite this diverting of my intentions, I had a great deal of affection for my grandfather, great admiration for him. My father was very close to him, and I learned a great many things from him about church affairs.
The McMurrin family closeness wasn’t just sentiment. It was almost tribal. My Grandfather McMurrin and my grandmother, Mary Ellen Hunter McMurrin, had seven children. Ultimately all of them followed their parents to California. At one time, all of my aunts and uncles and all of their children lived within the city of Los Angeles. My own family moved to Los Angeles in 1928, when I was fourteen. In California I became much closer to my grandfather and better acquainted with his thought and attitudes. In California he was the Mormon church.
So that was more an intellectual relationship, in contrast to the task-oriented relationship with your Grandfather Moss?
That oversimplifies my relationship with my Grandfather Moss a bit. My relation with him was very intimate, partly because I spent so much time with him but mainly because he was a remarkable human being. He and his son, my Uncle Ralph, who was foreman of the cattle ranches, were John Wayne types. They were big men, tremendously powerful in their influence on people—models of integrity. I don’t know what your image of a businessman is, Jack, but there was my grandfather—a rancher, head of an enormous agribusiness operation, and also president of a bank from the day it was organized until the day he died. He kept the bank solvent during the Great Depression. He was very tough, a person of remarkable integrity and equally remarkable generosity. No one ever approached him in need without receiving assistance.
[p.8] I was present several times when women in Davis County came to my grandfather needing money because their husbands were going to have operations or something and asked him to buy their stock in the company. He just gave them whatever they needed and told them to keep their stock so they’d have some income in the future.
And he was rigorous in matters of morals. We might be on horseback or in a pickup truck, and he would suddenly say, “Now, don’t you ever take a nickel that doesn’t belong to you.” That kind of talk can have a tremendous impact on a young kid, you know.
He wasn’t a Mormon ecclesiastical officer, of course, like your Grandfather McMurrin. What was his relation to the church?
Oh, he was a believing Mormon, but he didn’t wear his religion on his sleeve as some do. His Mormonism was simply an inherited property, like the color of his eyes. It was just unthinkable that he could be anything else. He was a genuinely devout person. I’ll just give you one example. I worked with Everett Cooley to collect the papers of the Deseret Live Stock Company for the University of Utah Library. The minutes of the early years show that before it declared dividends, the company paid tithing on its profits. I guess the stockholders paid tithing on their dividends, too, so the church probably collected twice.
But the church didn’t own him. My grandmother insisted that he go on a mission after his children were getting along. Missionaries were often married men in those days. He was well-to-do, so there were no financial problems with serving a mission for a couple of years. I’m not really sure why he agreed to go.
He didn’t want to, I take it, but perhaps his leaving was the only form of birth control your grandmother knew!
You’re probably right! He went to England, and he didn’t like it one bit. I have a letter that he wrote home to my grandmother. He said, “Dear Sister Moss”—married couples often called each other by their surnames then, you know—”I find no satisfaction or anything to be desired in missionary work… and I am disapointed [sic] although I am not surprised for it is just what I antispated [sic].” He just wanted to come home and get back to the sheep, cattle, and horses.
Well, now, we’ll test my theory. Did she send him the money to come home on?
Absolutely not. She didn’t send him the money, so he stayed there to finish his mission. After he came home, he served for several years as bishop of West Bountiful Ward. Thereafter he was always called “the Bishop.” He was a great man, in my opinion. Beyond my own parents,[p.9] he was the main influence on me.
Back to your Grandfather McMurrin for a moment. You said he had enormous influence on the LDS church. What ideas or principles were particularly important to him? What did he stand for as a leader?
Well, he was probably best known for his power and influence as a missionary. He had been involved in missionary activities for the church before he became president of the California Mission. In fact, that was the major assignment for the Seventies in those days. He had been either president or counselor to the president of the European Mission as a younger man and had worked for the church all of his life. As a matter of fact, he was one of the stone masons who helped construct the Salt Lake temple. He simply grew up with the church, but it was missionary activity that occupied most of his interests.
Anything more on the personal side of his life?
Perhaps I should tell you of his run-in with a federal marshal. I didn’t ever hear my grandfather comment on this, but my father told me of it, and it is in the histories of Utah and the church. The newspapers of the time were full of it. It happened in November 1885 when my father was about eight years old.
Just five years before the Woodruff Manifesto officially ending polygamy, then.
Yes, when things were very hot between the church and the government. My grandfather was not a polygamist. Neither of my grandfathers was, but three of my four great-grandfathers had two wives each. A deputy federal marshal named Henry F. Collin was snooping around identifying polygamists for prosecution; and he and my grandfather, who was a bodyguard of sorts for the First Presidency, apparently went the rounds—nothing physical, I gather, but some pretty rough words. Apparently it was understood by both men that the next time they saw one another they would finish it off. And the next time they encountered each other was at the old Social Hall that used to stand just south of Hansen Planetarium on State Street, where Social Hall Avenue is now. The First Presidency, who were all, of course, on the underground—hiding out from the feds who wanted them for polygamy—were having a secret meeting; and Grandfather was standing guard at the rear of the Social Hall when Collin came along.
The showdown . . .
Exactly. It appears that they both went for their guns, but Collin pulled a dirty trick. He had his hand on the pistol in his coat pocket and simply shot through his coat, fired two or three rounds. My grandfather [p.10] later said that he shot at Collin, too, but his gun had not been fired. I presume he intended to fire but was a little slow on the draw. He was shot two or three times in the body and they carried him to his house on Sixth South, between State and Main, expecting him to die. He was administered to—given a blessing of healing by the Mormon elders; and he lived. That has been regarded by some ever since as one of the miracles of the church, because he was very near death. He carried those bullets in his body for the rest of his life.
That story must have made quite an impression on you as a boy!
I suppose it did. From a boy’s perspective, it’s a tale about your government trying to kill your grandfather because of his religion. Tends to give you certain impressions about both institutions. But when I came back to that story as a young man, I saw it as a rather complicated affair, the way reality always is.
What brought you to this realization?
When I was a student at the University of Utah, President George Thomas assigned me to work on a history of the university, for which they paid me the going rate, 25 cents an hour. So I studied all the newspapers in the library, looking for items about the university; and I ran on to the reports of the Collin-McMurrin affair in the Deseret News and Salt Lake Tribune. I knew the family version, of course, and had read different versions in the various histories of Utah; but it was fascinating to read a running account with each day’s new developments. The Tribune actually reported him killed, but of course he didn’t die. Nevertheless, the Tribune later claimed to be the only newspaper that accurately reported the story of “Bad Boy McMurrin.”
What finally happened? The U.S. government didn’t let the incident drop, did it?
No. He was expected to be indicted for an attack on a federal marshal, so as soon as he could travel, the church smuggled him out of Salt Lake to England, where he stayed for some time as a missionary. After he returned from England, he gave himself up and the charges were dropped.
What was the local response?
The case has some importance in state history because there was such a great public outcry. The government thought that the Mormons might rise up in rebellion. They put Collin in protective custody at Fort Douglas for fear he’d be lynched, and telegraphed to Washington to strengthen the garrison—which was done. But there was no uprising.
[p. 11] Quite a big deal.
There’s a curious postscript to this affair. My father’s two sisters were attending a social event in Los Angeles about 1940 when a woman whom they had never met began telling the story of how her father, a deputy U.S. marshal named Collin, had shot one of those Mormons in the early days. An amazing coincidence.
Yes, I understand your grandfather had a very good library. Did you inherit it?
In his Salt Lake home was a library with books from the floor to the ceiling. That always fascinated me as a child, all those books. Some time after my grandmother died, the LDS Institute of Religion at the University of Utah was being built; so I asked Lowell Bennion, who was the founding head of the institute, whether he’d like me to collect my grandfather’s religious books for their library. My grandfather’s library had already been divided up, but I talked with my brothers, my mother, and my aunts and uncles, and they all made contributions; and his collection is still housed in specially built locked glass bookcases at the institute library.
What kinds of things did he have in the collection?
Oh, he had wonderful stuff. Some very important classical things that you can’t obtain now. Also much Mormon material, such as first-edition volumes of the Journal of Discourses. He also had important volumes on the history of religion, on theology, and by English divines.
Sterling, you speak affectionately but somewhat less extensively of your grandmothers. Did they have an important role in your growing up years?
They certainly did. My grandmothers were of two types. Both were very impressive women, really very impressive. My mother’s mother, Grace Ann Hatch Moss, had been reared in Davis County, one of eight children, with both her father and her husband as ranchers. I’d characterize her as a typical stalwart pioneer type with those rough-hewn, simple frontier virtues. These were people of great integrity. She was a really remarkable person. She was very close to her children and would not tolerate any one of them criticizing any of the others in her presence. For her, family loyalty was one of the prime virtues.
My father’s mother, Mary Ellen Hunter McMurrin, was—well, I’d describe her as queenly. She was a very beautiful woman, but it was her manner as much as her appearance. I felt that I was in the presence of royalty when I was with her, an amazing thing. Everyone seemed to feel the same way about her.
[p. 12] So family visits really took two different forms?
Right. When we would go to see my McMurrin grandparents, it was a rather formal occasion. There were very frequent family gatherings when all seven of the children and all of their children were living in Los Angeles—and I mean in Los Angeles, not in the suburbs. I still remember the remarkable deference these adult children showed their mother. It was almost as if she were holding court when her sons and daughters and their families would visit. She was very affectionate—I don’t want to imply any stiffness by saying it was formal, but, well, I think of adjectives like courtly or gracious in connection with her. Even when we were adults, when Natalie and I came into the room where my grandmother was holding court, looking very regal, we would go over, kiss her, and then sit down and behave ourselves.
Visits to my mother’s outfit were entirely informal. They had a very large, beautiful home in Woods Cross, a generous, capacious home, where I was born. It was a place that accommodated everybody of whatever ages. Even in the winters, we were often there. We’d come in, greet people, and make ourselves as much at home as if we were in our own home. There were usually a few cousins around, and we kids would have the run of the place—a beautiful farm, now covered with homes. The barn, now upgraded to carriage house, has been transformed into apartments.
How long did your grandparents live?
I really have strong memories of them. Joseph McMurrin, the first of my grandparents to die, passed away in 1932, when I was eighteen, William Moss when I was nineteen, and Grandmother Moss the next year, when I was twenty; but my Grandmother McMurrin lived almost ten more years. She died in the early forties.
It must have been a jolt to lose them all so fast, at your age.
Let me tell you about my Grandfather Moss’s death. Kind of an interesting story. When I was a student at the University of Utah in the fall of 1933, he was seventy-eight years old and was in Holy Cross Hospital for an operation. Almost every day I would walk down from the university and visit with him. He would tell me all kinds of stories about his life; if I’d had any sense, I’d have taken notes. We didn’t have such a thing as a tape recorder then. When he left the hospital, he returned to his home in West Bountiful to convalesce. I was with him one afternoon when he was going through some of his papers from the bank. He was set up in style in his bed in the living room, with a fire in the fireplace. One of the items was a back issue of the Deseret News, all [p.13] folded up, with a full-page article on the hereafter by Apostle James E. Talmage. He said to me, “I didn’t see any point in reading this until I was ready to die, so I put it in the bank vault; but now I guess I’d better read it.” He sat there and read it and two days later he died.
I hope Talmage’s words were comforting. What are your most vivid memories of your mother?
I was very close to my mother. I loved to spend time with her from my childhood until she died in 1965. She was a very beautiful woman, a person of true nobility, and very talented as a teacher and leader. She was involved in a few civic projects; but most of her activities beyond the circle of us children and the extended family were with the church. She was very active in the women’s auxiliary and the organization for the teenage girls—the Relief Society and the YWMIA—and so forth. Beyond these formal positions, she was also very kind—constantly ministering to the poor and those who were in need in one way or another. She was very generous with her time and talents. She was deeply religious but not extreme in her religious views. She was a person of very, very good sense and very open. I could talk to her about anything, more so than with my father, who tended to be more formal and conservative.
Can you give me an example?
She would say, “Do you believe all that stuff about the Book of Mormon?” That would make us think, you see. Or she’d make a statement that sounded dogmatic, like, “I expect my sons to be good Latter-day Saints and good Republicans.” But then she’d kind of smile. Frankly, she didn’t know the difference between a Republican and a Democrat. What she did know was that her father was a Republican, and that settled the question for her. But she was completely open-minded and approachable, a person whose company I always delighted in. In her later years she and I traveled around Europe together and visited Oxford and Cambridge universities.
When Natalie and I were in graduate school at USC during the summers of 1938 to 1945, we had no children and lived with my parents, who had plenty of room. It was a very congenial arrangement. Later, when we had our own place, we would never think of not including my parents in parties or dinners with friends. My brothers who lived in Los Angeles were the same way. Our parents were just a part of everything. Natalie and I wouldn’t so much as go to a movie without inviting my mother and father. We were a very close-knit family. We now have that same close relationship with our children and grandchildren.
[p. 14] And did you stay close to your brothers as adults?
Yes, we’re very close to this day. We have much in common. My brothers are liberals in both politics and religion, and we share our ideas freely. My brother Blaine died in late 1992. He and I had much in common. We had traveled together in Europe in the fifties when he and his family lived in Germany where he was a high-ranking civilian with the U.S. Air Force. He later moved to Los Angeles.
What about your father?
My father was a bit more formal than my mother. I would say that he had two major influences on me. First, he was a person of strong, even puritanical morals. There’s no question but what that has had a very strong influence on me. I’m really old-fashioned in my conceptions of what is right and wrong. I am constantly shocked by what passes today in language and behavior. His second influence was intellectual. He had me reading stuff at a very early age that had a very strong impact on me. My discussions with my father centered on religion and the church more than on society and social problems, though as a probation supervisor he was much involved with personal behavior and social issues.
Were you and your brothers actively involved in church as kids?
We were churchgoers in Ogden, at least on Sunday morning; then as we would sit around the table at our Sunday dinner, our conversations always centered primarily on religion. They were quite open conversations about what the speaker and teachers had to say. We were openly critical within limits. My father didn’t encourage rigorous criticism of general authorities or what you would call fundamental criticisms of the church. Nevertheless, he encouraged serious thought about what was said and how it was said. Mormons then paid a lot of attention to forensics and public discourse. Most Mormon kids took classes in public speaking in the MIA and participated in speech contests. So if someone spoke in our ward or stake meetings whose style or grammar weren’t very good, he got a good working over around the dinner table at our house. For my father, grammar was a matter of morals.
You said that this was in Ogden. Was it different in California?
Well, I’d have to admit that in California we became regular churchgoers, as opposed to irregular churchgoers. That was largely for social reasons. All of a sudden, church became immensely attractive, because here you would find people from home. That’s a much more powerful thing than most people who haven’t experienced it would realize. Some Mormons, of course, in moving to California, wanted to [p.15] get away from the church. In the big city, they became anonymous. But they were in the minority. A much larger number were pulled into the church and would show up every time there were lights on in the meetinghouse.
Your experience was more of the pulled-in type?
That’s right. At first we attended the Adams Ward—the oldest of the California Mormon wards, which no longer exists—and later the Wilshire Ward. There were close ties with Salt Lake City. In fact, there used to be a list posted on the bulletin board in the lobby of the Adams Ward keeping track of how fast you could drive to Salt Lake. People would come back and write their names on it and indicate how many hours it took. No freeways then! The roads were graveled from Nephi to Barstow; and through the corner of Arizona they weren’t even graded!
But in terms of our family discussions about what went on at church, the pattern was already set by the time we moved to California. It was open, honest, and usually quite critical.
A way of teaching, was it?
It taught, of course; but I don’t think that was the intent. It was rather a natural thing—that you thought about, talked about, analyzed what was happening to you. In those early days the Deseret News used to list the speakers in some of the Salt Lake City and Ogden wards for sacrament meeting. My father always looked for speakers who were especially competent intellectually and often took me with him to other wards. He did this all the time I was growing up in Ogden. During my teen years in Los Angeles, he was a great hand to ferret out interesting lectures at the universities or the Los Angeles library.
So he had personal intellectual needs that these activities nourished?
When our family went to Los Angeles, we didn’t miss a thing. If there was anything going on—lecture, theater, opera—we were there. My father became a thoroughgoing Angeleno. You know, Jack, I think my father was really a kind of misplaced university professor. He should have been a professor of English. He had literary talents and was a competent grammarian who paid close attention to language. But in Utah he landed in high school. In Ogden High School he taught English and mathematics and, I think, geography sometimes. But he really had the temperament and talents to have been in a university, very strong intellectual interests. He would pick out books for me to read; and when I was through with one, there would be another one.
Would you rather have had more? It sounds as if you had intimate discussions with your mother but the intellectual discussions were mainly [p. 16] with your father.
That’s quite true.
What kinds of things did you read?
The Harvard Classics, of course, along with a lot of other good stuff and all of the better church books. Because my father handed me books, I read a good many things that I otherwise would not have encountered except by chance. I remember, for instance, that on my tenth birthday my father gave me a copy of Science and Belief in God by Frederick J. Pack, a professor of geology at the University of Utah. I think it had just been published then, about 1924. I’ve lost my copy, I’m sorry to say.
Wasn’t that considered pretty advanced for its time?
I’d say it still is, Jack, considering the conservative direction the church took from the 1940s on with Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie. I’d say Pack’s book is still the best book in defense of evolution by an accepted Mormon. I’ve encouraged Pack’s son, Alvin, to see about reprinting it. If anything, Mormons have been intellectual backsliders since the early thirties.
Did your family have any feelings about evolution one way or the other?
Oh yes. I grew up believing in evolution. It was taken for granted in our home that evolution was good science, so we didn’t go through the crises that some young people have when they go to school and start learning different things. Neither I nor my brothers ever experienced this kind of crisis in our religious thinking, and I think it’s due largely on the one hand to the real common sense of my mother and on the other to the underlying message my father pounded into us—that science can be—even should be—harmonized with religion.
And evolution is just one example—
That’s right. In our home, we grew up from our earliest childhood, as far back as I can remember, talking freely about things having to do with religion—and religion was simply the center of our lives. That is, during the school year when we lived in the city. There was nothing that didn’t have some kind of religious connection, whether doctrinal, historical, ethical, personal—you name it. There were no forbidden topics. There were no forbidden attitudes. I think it’s true that I grew up with an essentially critical, but not cynical, approach to the world. When I say “no forbidden topics,” I should add that there are subjects discussed today that we had never heard of. We knew nothing much of such things as abortion and homosexuality and hadn’t the slightest inkling of premarital sex. We were quite unsophisticated, compared to teenagers today.
[p. 17] You mentioned your father’s moral strictness…
Oh, yes. When I say nothing was forbidden, I’ll make an exception for our behavior. My parents expected strictly moral behavior—honesty, ethical behavior, and rigorous sex morals. These things were taken for granted throughout my whole extended family.
What other books do you remember your father encouraging you to read that had a particular impact on your thinking?
Well, I remember when I was a kid, maybe eleven or twelve, he had me read H. G. Wells’s 1920 volume Outline of History. In addition to all the factual information—it was a pretty good liberal education—it exposed me to the idea that you can see patterns in events and attempt, at least, to make meaning out of them. I don’t think I ever read the whole thing, but I read a good deal of it. He encouraged me to read Darwin’s Origin of Species when I was in junior high school.
The Harvard Classics were the great books of that period. They were in my father’s library, and he was very fond of them. When I finished one, he’d move me on to the next. I was never very much attracted to the more literary stuff—although I do remember reading Dante’s Divine Comedy. And, of course, I read lots of church stuff. The church writings my father would give me to read were far superior, in my opinion, to most of what comes out today as church literature. I read B. H. Roberts, James E. Talmage, Orson F. Whitney, and Adam S. Bennion in those days.
And all of this was before you were out of high school! Did you read a lot during the summers?
Well, yes, but not these kinds of books. We wouldn’t want to take these volumes out where they’d get dirty or where a horse might step on them. At the ranch I’d encounter things by Jack London and Zane Grey—you know, that sort of thing. They’re considered culturally significant writers today, I know; but we didn’t put them in the same class as “serious” writers then.
Do you think your father saw himself as consciously countering what might have been some negative influences of the ranch?
I’d never thought about that; but you know, I think that may be the case. When my brothers and I would come down out of the hills in the fall, my father would look us over, haul us off to get haircuts and some new clothes, and then he’d always send us to the books. First, he’d try to make us look like human beings and then try to make sure we had something good to read. He never got an argument from me. I loved to read.
Was there any tension between your immediate family’s rather open attitude [p. 18] toward religious questions and your Grandfather McMurrin, the church leader?
No, no tension, as far as I know. But I doubt that my grandfather encouraged as much free thought in his family as my father did. Both of my grandfathers were the imperious type. They were the rulers of their families. The offspring didn’t criticize them. Children, even adult children, didn’t disagree with them. I don’t think it occurred to Grandfather McMurrin that any one of his flesh and blood would have a different opinion from his own. It just wasn’t done. When you were in the presence of either of my grandfathers, you realized that they were the bosses. At all those family gatherings in California, the conversation was genteel, interesting, entertaining, significant, courteous—but very deferential. No one ever argued with my grandparents. I have never heard of anybody in the family ever taking issue with them on anything except for my mother, on one occasion, referring to the family failures of B. H. Roberts. Her father-in-law silenced her in no uncertain terms, but she was right and he was wrong.
And your Grandfather Moss was the same way?
I’ll say! Frankly, it was a little bit like those movies about cattle barons. He was the head of anything wherever he went. If he went into Evanston or Woodruff, people stood back as he walked along the street. I’ve seen him with twenty-five or thirty ranch hands—more, sometimes, with the sheep during shearing time; when he walked through a place, I tell you people sat up and took notice. All the ranch hands would fall silent; then they’d start to talk again but they’d speak quietly and be careful what they said. I never heard anybody argue with him or take exception to anything he had to say.
During one shearing season when I was just a kid helping run the sheep in for the shearers, I recall a discussion about whether or not there was a “higher power.” One of them finally ended the discussion by saying, “Anyone who has ever worked for this company knows that there is a higher power, and that’s Bill Moss.”
Did your parents insist on the same deference?
No, not at all. I think my father might have preferred the deference shown to his father, and he did receive full parental respect. But he didn’t expect us to treat him as if he were some kind of untouchable.
You mentioned reading B. H. Roberts and also hearing him speak.
Yes, well, he was a friend of my Grandfather Moss. Their children had intermarried. They had great respect for one another, and Roberts would come to the ranch on occasion during the summers. He was also [p.19] closely associated, of course, with my paternal grandfather. I attended lectures by him in Los Angeles and had several conversations with him. He delivered the eulogy at my grandfather’s funeral.
What was the marriage connection?
My Uncle Ralph, my mother’s oldest brother, married Hazel Roberts, one of B. H. Roberts’s daughters by his second wife, Celia Dibble Roberts. That family lived in Centerville, so they were Davis County people. When I was a kid, we always called B. H. “Grandpa Roberts” and Celia “Grandma Roberts,” because I was so close to my cousins who were their grandchildren. It was a very official occasion when B. H. came to Centerville; he’d come there for Thanksgiving and Christmas and carve the turkey. I was in his Centerville home a number of times when I was young. I knew Mrs. Roberts quite well; she was almost like a sister to my own grandmother.
How well did you and your father get along on matters of religion?
My father and I had countless conversations on religion and church doctrine after I was grown. I often took exception to church actions and Mormon beliefs, and at times this bothered him some. This was especially true during the summers when Natalie and I were living with my parents in Los Angeles while I was in graduate school at USC. I remember, once, his saying, “Well, it looks to me like you don’t believe anything.” But that’s the closest to a hassle that we ever had; and when I would get into conflicts with other people over religion, he always came down on my side even when I expected him to come down on the other side. And then as I became involved in some conflicts with church authorities, he was very strongly on my side.
I honestly don’t know whether he believed that the Book of Mormon is authentic, because he would never even mention it. You’d think if it were an important part of his faith he would have brought it up. And another thing, he never saw the inside of the temple after he and my mother were married there. My mother would go occasionally, to accompany her own mother; but my father never did.
Are you saying he was a cultural Mormon? There seems to have been no question about his commitment to the church.
None. As I said, it was a kind of tribal loyalty. But on the issue of ecclesiastical authority, I think I may have witnessed a turning point with him, which is pretty interesting when you consider that he was a general authority’s son. I was present—I think it was in 1937—when he and Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith, for whom he had great respect, were discussing whether a bishop can forgive sins. My father was greatly [p.20] shocked when Apostle Smith insisted that a bishop can forgive sins and added that the difference between Mormons and Catholics on this matter is that Catholic priests take money for it. I think my father never quite recovered from this. It opened up a new avenue for his thinking to discover such nonsense purveyed by the church’s leading theologian of that time. On the same day, he discussed the matter with J. Golden Kimball, I remember, and they both had a good laugh over it. Kimball was just senior to his own father in the First Council of the Seventy.
That must have been something of a comfort to him. Did it have any effect on your relationship?
Well, yes, it did. It helped cement a closer relationship between my father and me on ideas about faith and authority. He was no longer so sure that the general authorities knew as much or were in as much agreement as he had taken for granted. He certainly didn’t lose his faith, but it wasn’t the same kind of naive faith—if I can say that without sounding mean—that he’d had before. After that point, he used to confide things in me that I think he wouldn’t mention in front of the other members of the family—things his own father had told him about the inner workings of the church and the relationships among the general authorities. I remember that he once said, “Father has told me that B. H. Roberts has written a book that, if it’s ever published, will just blow things sky high.” Those were his exact words.
That’s the Studies on the Book of Mormon, which Brigham Madsen edited and the University of Illinois Press published in 1985, isn’t it?
I think so, and I’ve often wondered what my father would have thought of my having had a hand in seeing that it was published. I think he’d be pleased. Of course, it may have been Roberts’s The Truth, The Way, The Life,4 which Roberts completed before his death but which the church refused to publish. It includes some of Roberts’s speculations on pre-Adamites—a notion which, in my opinion, is nonsense and wouldn’t blow anything sky high.5 No, I think it was his Book of [p.21] Mormon manuscripts. Well, my grandfather used to confide a lot of things to my father, rather than to his other sons; and my father would pass them on to me. We spent a lot of time discussing religious matters and other topics right up till the day of his death.
Did you have any sense as you were growing up that your father was investing more energy in his relationship with you than with your brothers?
No. His relationships with my brothers were just as solid as with me. But our relationship was, I think, based more on intellectual issues and interests. My eldest brother, Blaine, was much more interested in athletics in high school and college, and Father had a great interest in his career as an athlete. Keith, the brother who is just older than me, was a serious student of church history, and I well recall his discussions with my father on church stuff. My younger brother, Harold, had musical inclinations, and my father was a competent musician. He had a great deal of natural ability. As a matter of fact, in his early years he taught piano for a living and was constantly on call as a pianist, chorister, and choral leader. That was a bond between the two of them. As a child, I remember my father telling stories about serving his mission in England and then taking the grand tour on the Continent and attending performances, among other places, at the Paris Opera.
It must have been hard for him to satisfy all of his cultural appetites in Ogden. Was it easier in California?
Oh, we went to everything, no matter where we were. The first opera I ever attended was in Ogden. Lucy Gates Bowen, a granddaughter of Brigham Young and a well-known soprano, organized her own opera company, which produced operas in Utah. I still remember going to the Orpheum Theatre to see a performance of Faust. I attended with my father and a friend, a music teacher from the high school, I think. It was a great, moving experience for me. It really was. I was especially impressed by the way Marguerite’s brother, Valentine, after he had been run through with a sword due to the chicanery of Mephistopheles, lying there dying, could still sing loud enough that we could hear him clear up in the second balcony. My father and his friend were on the orchestra floor. The second balcony at the Orpheum was always fifty cents for major performances.
When John Philip Sousa’s band came through, we were there. I was in the second grade, and kids’ tickets cost ten cents. The performance was in the Alhambra Theatre in Ogden. What a crime to tear down beautiful theaters like the Alhambra and the Orpheum.
[p. 22] It must have been an unforgettable experience.
It was, it was. I can still remember how moved I was by “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”
Did they have chautauquas6 in Ogden at that time?
I didn’t know what a chautauqua was, so I think not. But I used to attend lectures of all kinds. My family were conservative Republicans, as I’ve mentioned—though not politically involved at all. I took it for granted when I was a little kid that the Democrats were rowdy and the Republicans were respectful. I well remember attending a Democratic meeting at Weber College’s auditorium—then an LDS college. Then I went to the Egyptian Theatre for the Republican rally, at which Herbert Hoover, then Secretary of Commerce, spoke. I remember reporting to my father that Republicans were a better-behaved crowd and more intelligent than the Democrats, and I “prophesied” that Hoover would someday be president of the United States.
Not bad at all as a prophecy. Did you also notice that the Republicans had less fun than the Democrats?
Well, what I noticed as a kid was that the Republicans seemed to be more dressed up than the Democrats. But I was terribly naive politically. I don’t remember many family discussions about politics at all, even during national crises, until we were living in California.
In your professional and public life you became well known as an advocate for equal rights and a number of causes championed by the Democrats, not by the Republicans. Can you identify when these interests began?
I can’t recall being interested in civil rights before I was in high school. I had never heard the term “civil rights.” In my environment, we were insulated. We just belonged to the moderate middle class in a small city with no slums that I knew of and no really visible minority populations. And there was no serious concern about human equality in the Deseret Live Stock Company! I was probably in college before I developed much sensitivity to the problems of inequality in America. My social conscience matured very slowly.
Well, Sterling, we’ve talked a lot about your parents and grandparents; but is there anything you’d like to say about any of your earlier ancestors? You[p. 23] said that all eight great-grandparents were Mormons.
I don’t know much about my paternal ancestors except that they were Scottish and perhaps some British. My great-grandparents were all early Utah pioneers. I understand that one of my maternal forebears worked on both the Kirtland, Ohio, and Nauvoo, Illinois, temples. My mother’s mother’s father, Orrin Hatch—no relation to Utah’s current senator—was the youngest member of the Mormon Battalion. He lied about his age to enlist. He was one of the party sent from Los Angeles into the mountains for a tree to use as the pole on which the first American flag was raised in that area. There’s a monument there now. His older brother was in the battalion, too; they worked for Sutter at Sutter’s Mill after they were mustered out of the army and were involved in the discovery of gold in 1847. Some of the gold he took to Utah became a wedding ring for my great-grandmother.
Resourceful fellow! Was he one of the three polygamous great-grandfathers?
He had two wives. On my mother’s side, both great-grandfathers had two wives. They were mild polygamists, you know—only two wives. I always claimed to be legitimate because I’m descended in each instance from the first wife. Now my mother’s ancestors are all British, so I’m virtually a hundred percent from the British Isles. One of my mother’s ancestors was William Bradford, the first governor of Plymouth Colony.
So you come by your theological interests genetically?
I’ve never had more than an academic interest in Puritan theology. But the important thing from my standpoint is that I’m a one hundred percent Utahn. All branches of my family on both sides were in Utah long before the railroad came in 1869.
Sterling, beyond your family, who were your childhood heroes?
You’ve noticed that my two grandfathers had heroic properties as far as I was concerned. As a typical Mormon kid, I naturally looked with great respect on the LDS general authorities; and as a typical American, I believed that George Washington and Abraham Lincoln could do no wrong. Thanks to my father’s reading program for me, I knew quite a bit about ancient history; and I’ll have to confess that Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar were, in a sense, heroic figures for me and, in a slightly different way, Augustus Caesar. I did some reading about Napoleon as a kid, but I wasn’t much taken with him.
Any scriptural heroes?
Well, you’d certainly think so, wouldn’t you. Let’s see. I can’t really remember any. I read a great deal about Jesus, of course, but I don’t [p.24] remember associating him with heroism as much as with great compassion and representing everything that was ideal. I didn’t pay much attention to the Old Testament until I was in college; and I never did have the slightest interest in the Book of Mormon or its heroic figures. I had great respect for Joseph Smith when I was young. As a matter of fact, I remember taking the role of Joseph Smith in the Sacred Grove in some religious pageant when I was eight or ten.
You’ve said you weren’t too much interested in literature, so I don’t suppose any of the literary heroes …
As a child I read the stories of King Arthur, of course. I can well remember my great respect for Sir Galahad; after all, his strength was as the strength of ten because his heart was pure. I’ve never known for sure what it means to have a pure heart, but I thought that must be a very good thing. Zelta Ballinger, my English teacher for all three years of junior high in Ogden, spent a lot of time on Greek mythology and Greek culture, and that had a very great impact on me. It introduced me to Plato and Aristotle. My father had me reading some of their stuff, but it was pretty tough for a kid. Still, I respected and admired them. I think, if I were picking out the top three or four, I’d have to say my heroes were Jesus, Plato, Aristotle, and perhaps Alexander the Great.
The twenties were a wild and woolly time in American sports. Did you follow Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig?
Babe Ruth, but not Lou Gehrig. I was actually a lot more interested in a Utah sports hero like Jack Dempsey. I remember hearing the Jack Dempsey-Gene Tunney fight on the radio. The first radios had come to Ogden when I was about ten, in 1924 or 1925, and some neighbors on the corner had a set. They would put the speaker—it was shaped like a horn—in their window; and in the evenings, people would stand outside their house and listen to the musical broadcasts.
Now for baseball, during the World Series, either the Deseret News or the Salt Lake Tribune or both had a painted ball diamond fifteen or twenty feet high on the side of the building at South Temple and Main Street in Salt Lake City. As the information came over the telegraph, the diamond would light up, and they would run little models of the balls and players around the field while the announcer described what was happening. People congregated there by the hundreds.
Did you play sports?
I was pretty good at baseball, believe it or not; but this was just the sandlot baseball kids would play wherever you could get enough players [p.25] together and find an enemy to take on. I also played on our school baseball team. We did as we pleased—no adult supervision, none of this Little League stuff. I used to catch without a mask—dangerous to do but masks cost too much. Never tried football. I played a little intramural basketball in high school and on an LDS ward team. When I went to UCLA in the fall of 1931, I made some impression, as I could run the 220 and the low hurdles at a pretty good rate. They tried to get me to go out for track, but I had to work every day. That very winter I developed a severe bronchial ailment, and I’ve never been able to run since.
Was that hard on you? Emotionally, I mean?
It was and still is. My Grandfather and Grandmother Moss came to California to visit their daughters every winter. Well, when he saw me with that severe bronchial condition, Grandfather said, “If your folks had stayed in Utah where they belong, you wouldn’t be having this trouble.” And you know, he was probably right. He meant it kind of morally—that my folks had done something wrong, something that upset the natural order of things in our family by moving to California. But the climate did trigger the bronchial attacks, and that was long before the pollution got bad. He looked at me and said, “You get back to Utah.” He told my parents, “I want him back on the ranch this summer, and he needs to stay in Utah,” and that was the end of that. Nobody argued with him, and I transferred to the University of Utah for my sophomore year. I was the first of my Grandfather McMurrin’s descendants to leave Los Angeles when I came back to Utah to live.
Did that take care of the bronchial condition?
Yes. I was perfectly all right all summer on the ranch. I’ve managed to get by quite well since then, but the bronchial asthma has always been a problem for me. It kept me out of the military during the Second World War. I tried with no success to enlist in both the army and navy. Having been turned down several times by the army, I didn’t try the air force. I have had a lot of trouble with asthma again over the last five years.
What kind of dreams did you have as a kid about what your adult life might be like?
Well, I hesitate to confess all these things; but since you’re asking, when I was in fifth or sixth grade, my great ambition was to be a railroad engineer. In those days of steam engines, railroading was a romantic affair. I paid a lot of attention to trains; we’d take the train from Ogden [p.26] to Evanston to go to the ranch. Then there was some experience in loading sheep and wool on trains. Ogden was full of trains in those days, and I spent quite a lot of time around the railroad yard. I remember my fourth- or fifth-grade teacher assigned us to write a theme about what we’d like to be when we grew up, and I wrote about being an engineer. The funny thing is that I thought the term “civil engineer” was a sophisticated term for railroad engineer. The teacher read part of my theme to the class and said, “Now, if you’re going to be a civil engineer, you’re going to be out in the sun a lot and do a lot of walking.” I wondered what was the matter with her.
Well, that was one of my ambitions, but I soon outgrew it. When I was in junior high school in Ogden, ROTC was mandatory. I passed some kind of examination and was made a sergeant. And let me tell you, that was something! I was looked upon as a person of real stature! I developed a great desire for a military career.
And what happened to that ambition?
Oh, then we moved to Los Angeles, and the ROTC there was voluntary. I signed on, but it was so sloppily handled compared to my Ogden unit that I lost interest and dropped it at the end of the year. I was later in ROTC at UCLA, where it was required for all men students.
I had a third great interest. When I think of my lack of talent, it’s an embarrassing confession. As a kid and up through high school, I had a pretty good singing voice. Well, I really had a passionate interest in music, especially in symphony and grand opera. I had the lead in my junior high opera in Ogden. The female lead was a beautiful girl, and there we were in this romantic situation, both of us twelve or thirteen. The director, Edna Hardy, a great, no-nonsense teacher, told me to put my arm around the girl as we sang a duet. Well, I’d never put my arm around a girl before. I didn’t have the faintest idea how to begin, and of course all the kids were down there giggling and watching. Miss Hardy yelled at me to get at it, and finally, totally embarrassed, I sort of draped my right arm around her neck. Miss Hardy marched over, snatched my arm away, and said, “Haven’t you ever put your arm around a girl? Put it around her waist!” And she wrapped my arm around this lovely girl’s waist. I’ll tell you, Jack, I damn near died.
Well, that opera went really well. In high school in Los Angeles, I had the opera lead again. I’m afraid that, for a short time, I entertained ridiculous ambitions to be in grand opera. At any rate, this lovely girl in junior high had a marvelous singing voice. My brother Harold had a [p.27] great voice and was in the New York theater and light opera during the late forties and fifties.
You still like serious music a lot, don’t you?
Oh, sure. I used to go to New York almost twice a month in the sixties and into the seventies. The very first thing I’d do when I’d get to a hotel was beat it over to the Metropolitan Opera and get a ticket. It wasn’t hard, getting just one. I wouldn’t miss an opera if I was in New York and had a free night. Natalie and I never miss a chance to attend the opera—here, in New York, or in Europe when we are there.
Well, those are three noble ambitions.
I suppose a fourth would have been somewhat more practical. When I first entered UCLA, I entertained the idea of studying law, but not with the idea of having a typical legal practice. My interests ran more to international law and the foreign service. That’s why I registered as a major in political science. When I transferred later to the University of Utah, I took international law and American diplomacy my first semester from George Emery Fellows, a major scholar who was chair of the history department. I even considered going to George Washington University so that I could get some position with the government while I was going to school. But all the time I was studying philosophy at UCLA and at Utah, philosophy completely captivated me.
Earlier you described your childhood environment as being preoccupied with religious and LDS church issues. When did your interest in international law emerge?
When I was in high school in Los Angeles. It was stimulated by my father’s brother, Everard, who was a brilliant attorney and deputy city attorney for Los Angeles. But I came naturally to the idea and interest in international affairs. I was much interested in problems of government when I was in high school, even to the point of writing several papers on government issues in addition to regular assignments.
Do you remember, as you grew up, having any particular inadequacies or any particular talents?
I certainly recognized plenty of inadequacies, but no special abilities. I thought I had some musical talent, but of course, I was mistaken. I may have thought that I had some talent as a writer, because when I was twelve, I started my first and last novel.
Let me guess. A western?
Naturally. When I was eleven or twelve, my father gave me some birthday money for a book, and I went downtown and bought Zane [p.28] Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage. My father never forbade us to read anything—and there was no chance of kids running into pornography those days—but he warned me that Zane Grey was anti-Mormon and liked to use Mormons as villains. I think it’s the only thing I ever read of Zane Grey’s, but the title intrigued me; and the next summer when I was on the ranch and spending my evenings and nights in a sheep camp with a kerosene lamp, I thought I’d try my hand at a western novel. The Deseret Live Stock Company’s cattle brand, right to this day, is a quarter-circle J—the letter J with a quarter of a circle over it. It had been my grandfather’s personal brand. For my title, I chose Riders of the Quarter Circle J. I thought that was a great title and I still do. Up in the hills above the Weber River is Francis Canyon, the setting for the opening of chapter 1. The first sentence was, “It was a dark and dreary night.” The second sentence was, “A shot rang out!” Certainly a dramatic opener. But I didn’t get to the third sentence, as I couldn’t decide just who was the shooter and who was the shootee.
At least it started off with a bang! Do you still have it around somewhere?
I saw it a few years ago—two sentences on a piece of scrap paper—but I don’t know what became of it after that. I certainly hope it’s lost.
What were you reading that summer?
Well, that’s interesting. It wasn’t westerns, as you might have supposed. The sheep foreman, a tremendously impressive person, was William Sorenson from Spring City, Utah. He hired herders and camp jacks from Spring City, some of whom were quite well read.
What’s a camp jack?
A camp jack is the herder’s assistant. He pulls the sheep camp from one place to another, looks after the dogs and horses, cooks the meals, washes the clothes, and generally keeps house while the herder works with the sheep. Well, that summer, I found in the sheep camp where I was working a copy of Darwin’s The Descent of Man that a herder or camp jack had left there. Now, my father had already had me read at least a part of Darwin’s The Origin of Species, so that summer I read The Descent of Man.
Heavy-duty stuff for a young man in a sheep camp.
Well, that’s all there was to read in the camp—besides, I was writing a book myself, you know!
Do you recall any embarrassments and adversities—social obstacles—that gave you your determination to achieve?
No, my childhood was placid and supportive. My father and mother [p.29] were very close. It was a very happy family. I think it’s probably a deficit to grow up without sisters, but my brothers and I right to this day are just as close as a family could be. My parents are both dead. It was a family of modest means, you understand. High school teachers never did make very much money. My father would joke that my mother had champagne tastes with a beer pocketbook because my Grandfather Moss was quite well-to-do, and she was reared in an atmosphere of plenty. Actually, so was my father. My father’s mother had inherited considerable property. Her father, if I’m not mistaken, owned the land on Main Street and Fourth South where the federal court building now stands. So actually, my parents were both reared in conditions of plenty; and even though Father never made much money, I never had a sense of being denied anything.
What did you do for a good time up there on the ranch? There weren’t any Little League teams, movies, or other entertainments that kids so often depend on today.
Entertainment? Well, we worked most of the time, even when we were kids. There were always things to be done. But a trip to Woodruff or Evanston was always an event. There were always horses around, if you wanted to ride out somewhere. A little like a sailor’s holiday boating on the lake, but those who work with horses sometimes can’t get enough of them. After supper, you go out to the barn or corrals, put your foot up on a rail, and just watch the damn things eat. Of course, we would pitch horseshoes, ride calves when we were little, and play baseball when we were older. But there just wasn’t a lot of free time. Work was six days a week, and sometimes not even Sundays were off.
But one of the forbidden pleasures—you’ve seen inside-out granaries?
Where the vertical studs are on the outside of the building?
That’s right, so the planks that are holding back all that grain will be pushing against the studs. Otherwise the pressure of the grain would pop the planks off. And there are metal tie rods that span from wall to wall to keep them from bowing out. There were big granaries on the ranch, oats for the horses, and so forth. Well, we kids—my brother Keith and I and two or three cousins who were about the same age would get out on these rods and then drop into the grain—stark naked so the grain wouldn’t get into our clothes. We’d swing along those rods playing Tarzan and miss a rod or crash into each other and fall into the grain. We’d never get hurt, but when our aunts caught us, they’d give us hell. Then there were the ponds to swim in, always naked, of course.
[p.30] And I’ll tell you one more ranch story. They had two commissaries at the ranch. The Deseret Live Stock Company operated a general store at Woods Cross. You could buy anything there—pickles to horse collars. At shearing time in the spring, when the herds were being split up for their summer range, the sheepherders and camp jacks would come to the commissary at the shearing corral to stock up for the summer. It was like a rendezvous, a trappers’ rendezvous with lots of visiting and activity and excitement.
But the home ranch kept its own commissaries—one for food and the other for hardware. Well, one summer they had a good supply of black powder. These places were kept locked, of course, but Keith and I and two cousins figured out ways of getting in. We spent the whole summer acquiring small quantities of powder and blowing things up. It’s a wonder we didn’t kill ourselves. We started out blowing cans into the air.
And then you got braver?
Well, we were just dumb kids. There were some deep washes at the mouth of the canyon, and we’d spread the powder up and down, end in a small cave, then light the trail, and run like hell for fifty yards so we could watch it go off. That was the biggest bang between the Creation and Hiroshima for us. They caught us, of course, and we caught hell. That ended my career as an explosives expert.
Your play was imaginative and spontaneous. Dangerous, sometimes, but generally wholesome?
That’s the truth. Oh, yes. There was none of this Little League stuff with parents organizing and supervising and shouting at the kids. Parents had work to do. I think that that independence was good for us.
You had to make your own rules?
Oh, yes. In Ogden we would set up our own diamond, decide who was going to play where, how many innings there would be, and resolve our own conflicts. Sometimes there were fights, but the parents were not in the picture. We had to earn our own money, go down and buy our own mitt, ball, and bat. But my father didn’t care much about sports, so the situation may have been quite different in other families.
In many respects you enjoyed an idyllic youth, Sterling. Your experiences were highly stimulating and diverse, you knew freedom and learned responsibility at an early age, and you were part of an extended family that was generous with its love and support.
I was indeed very fortunate.
1. This Home Ranch still includes 220,000 acres in northeastern Utah. Bought by the LDS church in 1983, it was recognized nationally as a model cattle ranch, receiving U.S. President George Bush’s “Take Pride in America Award” in 1989. It includes a game preserve for buffalo, elk, moose, deer, and other large animals. See Jean Ann McMurrin, The Deseret Live Stock Company: A Brief History, 1891-199I (Woodruff, UT: Deseret Land and Livestock, 1991), 1-11; Arizona Republic, Chart, Sunday, June 30, 1991, 5.
2. The ecclesiastical hierarchy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) in Joseph W. McMurrin’s day consisted of the first-ranked First Presidency (the president of the church with first and second counselors), the second-ranked Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, headed by the senior apostle, and the third-ranked First Council of the Seventy, consisting of seven presidents ranked by seniority. In 1976 the First Council of the Seventy was dissolved and replaced by the First Quorum of the Seventy, consisting of a potential seventy members headed by the seven-man Presidency of the First Quorum of the Seventy. Joseph McMurrin was sustained (approved by a vote of a semi-annual general conference) as one of the seven presidents on October 5, 1897, when he was thirty-nine. This appointment was a full-time, lifetime “calling.”
4. This work was published independently of the LDS church in 1994 by Smith Research Associates (San Francisco, California) and distributed by Signature Books. Edited by Stanley Larson, it includes an introduction by Sterling M. McMurrin. Brigham Young University Studies released its own edited version with commentary the same year. See B. H. Roberts, The Truth, The Way, The Life: An Elementary Treatise on Theology, ed. John W. Welch (Provo: BYU Studies, 1994).
6. Traveling presentations of education and entertainment (lectures, concerts, and plays), often presented outdoors or in tents and named after Lake Chautauqua in western New York, where the idea emerged in 1873. Chautauquas flourished in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.