Matters of Conscience
Sterling M. McMurrin and L. Jackson Newell
Heresies and Criticism
[p. 179]When you returned to Utah as a professor in 1948, Sterling, were you already known as a Mormon heretic?
If I wasn’t, it didn’t take long. During my first year I was invited to address a returned missionary fraternity in the old Union Building—now Gardner Hall. At that time there was a lot of hullabaloo over labor problems, and some Mormon general authorities were making outspoken anti-labor statements.
They supported the Taft-Hartley Act and the movement to trim the power of unions and require anti-communist loyalty oaths of all labor leaders.
That’s it, and I talked about religion and society and brought up the matter of the church’s position on labor. Everything was fairly moderate at least for me but at the end one young man got up, pointed his finger at me, and announced that I should be excommunicated from the church because I was in opposition to the Brethren. It broke the meeting up into a general argument.
So that marked you as a rabble-rouser?
No, by damn, even before I started teaching at the University of Utah, I was in trouble. I taught two classes at BYU’s summer session in 1947, one on contemporary philosophy and the other on types of religious philosophies. I had some excellent students, many of them quite advanced. But Sydney Sperry, who held a doctorate from the University of Chicago and directed Old Testament studies at BYU, had become an apologist for the church. I quickly discovered that he had had two spies enroll in my classes. The spies were both graduate students, and I think I gave them both A’s. Well, about two-thirds of the way along in the term, they met with me after class and quizzed me about what I did and did not believe.
Knowing they were spies, you must have had some fun.
One of the first questions was: “Do you believe the devil is a real person?” I said, “No, but, come to think of it, every devil I know is a [p. 180]real person.” I answered all their questions, taking things slowly and easily so they could write down my answers. When they were through I said, “I think I should tell you that I’m well aware that you two are in my classes to spy for Professor Sperry. …. Oh, no, no,” they protested. I said, “There is no use denying it, because I know you are. Even the other students know that you are spies.” They looked a little abashed and said, “Well, we’re just doing our duty, just doing our duty.”
The BYU administration must have known they were only going to get one crack at you, so they decided to get their money’s worth that summer.
Maybe so. In addition to teaching my classes, they assigned me to give a sermon every Sunday morning at the devotional meetings in the chapel of the Joseph Smith Building. I did, too, and I spoke mostly on Mormon philosophy. That created some problems. Every Thursday afternoon I also gave a public lecture on Mormonism and society. These sessions attracted a lot of people and stirred up a lot of controversy. One of the spies would stand against the back wall and periodically slip down the hall to Sperry’s office and tell him what I was saying. It is beyond belief that this kind of thing could take place in an institution of higher learning. I think they had first-rate students, and still do, but they were deprived of a first-rate education—and that’s a crime.
This whole affair ended with a bang, did it not?
The last session was so crowded that people brought in chairs and some stood along the walls. I was talking about the church and social problems when a young man—in his twenties—stepped forward, raised his fist, and said, “I say if we’re going to fight the church, we’ve got to strike now.” I was flabbergasted, and Wiley Sessions, who was the head of religion, was utterly shocked. He got up and shushed everyone down again. Ray Canning told me that Wiley was fired for having me there. I hope it’s not true. But Wiley was near retirement age. He had started building houses and, as it turned out, had a more lucrative career ahead of him.
I understand your old friend Eugene Roberts ran into Sidney Sperry later that summer and said, “I’d like to know when Sterling McMurrin will be invited back to BYU.”
Yes, and Sperry said, “That man will never again be allowed to speak on this campus.”
A rather accurate prophecy, I’d say. Even so, you have known and respected most of the presidents of the LDS church over the last half century.
For the most part, my relations with church leaders have been both pleasant and rewarding. I have had personal contact with a number of [p. 181] the general authorities, from James E. Talmage and B. H. Roberts in the late 1920s and thirties to the present.
Differences among them in philosophy and style have been sharper than most people realize. I understand, for example, that Joseph Fielding Smith’ s book, Man, His Origin and Destiny, wasn’t embraced by President David O. McKay?
No, but I don’t think President McKay ever mentioned it in a conversation with me. However, his second son, Llewellyn, who was professor of German at the University of Utah for many years, would often drop in my office to visit with me, and he let me know of his father’s strong opposition to that book. President McKay took the position that Joseph Fielding Smith was free to say or write whatever he pleased, but that his book should not be taken as representing the official position of the church or of the general authorities collectively. It was not to be used as a text in any church class.
McKay seemed more than fair in this instance, as in many others.
I thought so. Well, we had a study group here at the university around 1950. We used to get together to discuss religious issues with invited guests who had made special studies or written books of interest to us, usually but not always relating to Mormonism. We were known as the Swearing Elders.
Why the “swearing” elders? Who was doing the swearing and what about?
We weren’t a tame bunch, you know, and we included a few professors from BYU, such as P. A. Christensen from the English department, Wilford Poulson from psychology, George Hansen from geology, John Swenson from sociology, and others. There were people from the institute of religion here at the University of Utah—Lowell Bennion, Ed Lyon, and George Boyd. Heber Snell, the Bible scholar, and Joseph Geddes, a leading sociologist, usually came down from Utah State, and Jennings Olsen from Weber College. Once three undergraduates from BYU hitchhiked up to Salt Lake to join us, but we didn’t let them in. The BYU faculty simply served notice that they wouldn’t be able to talk freely if those students were present.
Sounds as if the BYU contingent regarded this as risky business. How did the Swearing Elders get started?
Several graduate students and young faculty members at the University of Utah organized the group in the spring of 1949. Their leader graduated a few months later, however, and that nearly ended it. But Lowell Bennion at the LDS Institute of Religion got hold of Bill Mulder in our English department and me and said, “Look, this thing is very [p. 182] important for us but we can’t very well hold it at the institute of religion, so why don’t you two take it over?” After some persuasion, Bill and I agreed to do it. As a matter of fact, we did have a couple of sessions in the institute and we were entirely open about our activities. At one of these, Apostle Adam S. Bennion addressed the group.
I understand you didn’t have a regular meeting schedule; but when you got someone who had done an important piece of research or writing on Mormonism, you’d send out notices to the faithful and have a meeting?
Oh, yes, and usually twenty would attend. Rarely more. We met in a pretty good-sized room in the old Union Building. Usually we met about 4:00 or 4:30 in the afternoon in the east room of the basement. There was a cafeteria there and we’d sit at tables and have milk shakes and sundaes during the session. It was always pleasant.
Back to the Swearing Elders. Where did that name come from?
Lowry Nelson, a leading sociologist at the University of Minnesota, was at the University of Utah during the early months of the group’s meetings. He attended and called it the “Swearing Elders.” The name stuck. Most of those who met were Mormons, as he was, but we invited a variety of other people to the sessions when we thought they would be interested—Louis Zucker, the region’s leading Jewish scholar, Henry Frost, a sociologist, and others. For speakers we sought a variety of viewpoints—both Mormon and non-Mormon—always persons whose research and writing deserved attention. BYU’s scholar of ancient languages, Hugh Nibley, University of Utah anthropologist Charles Dibble, Whitney Cross, author of the Burned-Over District, and others. It was always an excellent affair for those who wanted to talk freely and listen to others who spoke freely.
The Swearing Elders went on for several years, as I recall, encountering resistance from various church authorities. I understand BYU’s president Ernest Wilkinson tried with little success to prevent members of his faculty from participating. So why did the thing fizzle out?
Well, Bill Mulder and I finally got tired of making the arrangements. Our final session was a semi-formal debate over Joseph Fielding Smith’s infamous anti-science book, which had been out a year or two by then. On one side was Jennings Olsen, a professor of philosophy at Weber College who also taught anthropology and psychology. Olsen was a man of great talent, certainly the leading luminary of Weber College in those days, and a regular member of the Swearing Elders. He was so incensed by Apostle Smith’s book that he wanted to make a public statement on it. I wasn’t sure it was even worth discussing, but Olsen was determined.
[p. 183] Somehow I don’t see Joseph Fielding Smith agreeing to debate his views with a bunch of skeptics.
Nor did he! But I did get Melvin Cook, who wrote the book’s introduction, to defend the work against Olsen’s attack. Cook was a world-class authority on explosives, a professor of engineering and metallurgy here. In religion, though, he was a conservative Mormon—very traditional and exceedingly orthodox. He was, in a sense, President Smith’s scientific adviser for this book, which contained a remarkable amount of bad science, if you could call it science at all. Cook had a very high opinion of the book and wrote that if they gave Nobel prizes in theology, Joseph Fielding Smith would have received one.
This adds up to an interesting evening!
Oh, it was. Word got out, you know. We didn’t advertise the affair, but a number of people asked to come, including Lee Stokes, head of our geology department, and Llewellyn McKay, professor of languages and a son of President McKay. We were happy to have them, of course. Several LDS general authorities also showed up. Bruce R. McConkie came and was quite active in the discussion—he was President Smith’s son-in-law—and Milton Hunter, another Seventy, and, as I recall, Apostle Mark E. Petersen.
It’s remarkable that general authorities would attend. They certainly wouldn’t do such a thing today. Can you summarize the arguments?
Well, Cook argued for a very young earth, insisting that geological antiquities and the processes known to create sedimentary rock were pure nonsense. After Cook and Olsen had equal time for their statement and rebuttal, discussion broke open. Lee Stokes summarized the typical geological view of the development of the earth’s crust and said, “Now, Dr. Cook, apparently you don’t believe this?” I had a feeling that it was a little rough on Stokes to think he had such a naive colleague. And Cook answered, “Oh, no. That would take a long time.” I thought it was fairly comical—that he could have God hustling around creating the earth in short order but he couldn’t think of God as having enough time to let natural processes take their course.
A Mormon God has many worlds to look after and no time to waste! Did Bruce McConkie really play a role?
He got into the act defending Cook—defending Joseph Fielding Smith, of course, being as dogmatic as ever. He and I were both in our early thirties when we had had an encounter several years earlier in a church meeting in the Los Angeles Stake. He was a newly appointed member of the First Council of Seventy, and I blasted him in the meeting [p. 184] for insulting those who could not answer his questions the way he wanted. He would call out a name, have the man stand, ask him a question, then say, “You’re wrong. You sit down.” If the victim protested at all, he’d say, “I told you to sit down!” His behavior was disgraceful, and I couldn’t sit still for any more of it. I interrupted the meeting to tell him we were not going to tolerate any more of this humiliation. So there we were years later, and McConkie was holding forth again. It was getting quite late and the custodian came in and said he had to lock the building. I was chairing the meeting, so I said, “How much time can we have?” He said, “I’ll give you ten minutes.” Everyone heard him.
So I said, “Any further comments must be limited to two minutes.” Well, McConkie was on his feet and he kept talking. When his time was up, I pointed to my watch. He kept talking, so I stood up. He said, “Now just a minute, Sterling…” I shot back, “Now, you wait a minute, Bruce, your time is up, so you sit down.” He did sit down, too. I don’t often talk like that, of course, but I’d been waiting for years to tell McConkie to sit down!
I’d guess a majority of the people in the room were amused by the exchange. Were most of them also critical of the book?
Yes, you’d expect that from an academic crowd. I don’t recall Apostle Petersen saying anything, but Llewellyn McKay stood up and said, “I’ve talked to my father about this book, and he doesn’t like it. He doesn’t agree with it. He would like it to be known that this book doesn’t represent the church’s position and that it must not be used for teaching any religion classes.” Then he added that President McKay said Joseph Fielding Smith was free to say or write what he wanted to, as long as he didn’t claim it was church doctrine.
None of this apparently discouraged Mel Cook, the father of Merrill Cook, our persistent third-party candidate for Utah public office in the 1980s and nineties. Didn’t the elder Cook go on to publish some of his views?
Oh, yes. He blasted our world-class chemist Henry Eyring for his scientific views on the age of the earth, and he gave me hell in several passages. I will say for Cook, however, that he sent over proofs of those critical paragraphs about me and asked if I had any objections. I wrote back that I had no objections whatever, but that he hadn’t cited sources for my statements in at least a couple of places. I gave him the sources, and they showed up in the published version.
I have a personal connection with this story, Sterling. In 1963-64 I was a recent convert to the LDS church and a new faculty member at Clemson [p. 185] University in South Carolina. Several local members told me that I couldn’t be a Mormon in good standing if I accepted the theory of evolution. Well, I wrote Joseph Fielding Smith a letter, explained that I was wrestling with this issue, and asked what he thought about the matter. He scrawled across the bottom of my letter, “See my book, Man, His Origin and Destiny,” and mailed it back to me. I ordered a copy from Deseret Book, read it, and just about left the church right then.
A very logical decision, given the circumstances. Why didn’t you?
As it turned out, the church’s Improvement Era magazine published an article by none other than Lee Stokes shortly after that. His point was that evolution is perfectly logical, that the scriptures don’t proscribe it—they’re simply silent on it—and members are free to make up their own minds. Given the background you’ve provided here, I’ll bet President McKay wanted Lee Stokes’s views aired in order to counter Smith’s book.
Yes! I hope Stokes also made the point that the LDS church has never officially taken a stand against evolution. Even so, I think things have slipped quite a bit since those days. Bruce McConkie made a speech against evolution at BYU shortly before he died, and Boyd Packer continues to attack it periodically. I miss the old days when Fred Pack, James E. Talmage, and B. H. Roberts actually took science seriously. I remember Talmage commenting on the popular view that the six-day creation period was actually six thousand years because of some scripture that a thousand years is as a day with the Lord. Talmage’s comment was, “This is like saying, ‘If you can’t dam the Mississippi with a teaspoon, use a tablespoon.'”
There always seem to be one or two LDS apostles who think a young earth is better than an old one, and they preach as though their salvation—and everyone else’s faith—depends on it.
I think the evolution hassle is strange considering that the Mormon church lays so much stress on development—even eternal progression. You would think it would try to come to terms with evolution sooner or later. Even the Catholic church has managed to do this quite effectively, and its theology doesn’t have anywhere near the pro-evolution possibilities of Mormon theology.
Isn’t this part of a larger problem with Mormon theology? There are not any good theologians or philosophers among the leadership. When members try to work seriously on a theological problem, they get slapped down.
No wonder they say to hell with it. The Mormon church is always vulnerable to ultra-conservatives, biblical literalists, and scientific illiterates. Henry Eyring, the foremost Mormon scientist, was attacked for his [p. 186] views on evolution from podiums at the LDS institute across the way from his office. That’s shocking. Henry was as devout a Mormon as one could find, a person of genuine piety.
President McKay was a charismatic leader during his early years as president. He seemed to soar above these battles, didn’t he?
He certainly did. I had occasion to take Walter Reuther, the great labor leader, to meet President McKay in the 1950s. We had a long and pleasant discussion with him in the president’s conference room. As we left the building, Walter said to me, “I have met with major leaders all over the world, including kings and presidents; but I have never in my life met a person who made such an impression on me as this man has.”
I understand that you have one great regret in relation to President McKay?
Back in the sixties Pope John XXIII issued the famous document Pacem in terris that received attention all over the world. I was invited to participate in an affair relating to it at the United Nations in New York. This gave me the idea that it would be a wonderful thing if President McKay were to make an extended statement on personal and social values that could also be widely disseminated and discussed. I met with his sons, Lawrence, Llewellyn, and Edward, and suggested that they take this proposal to their father. Word came back that he wanted to go ahead with it and would like me to write the document. It had never occurred to me that I would become involved in this way, but I agreed to do it. Unfortunately, I was so involved in work with the university and the federal government at that time that I simply couldn’t find time for the writing. I should have put other things aside and gone ahead with it. I’ll always regret this.
Indeed, you missed an opportunity that might have benefitted the church for years! President McKay was a remarkable speaker, as I recall, who spoke to the essential values of Christianity and did so with style.
He had uncommon talent for communicating with individuals or congregations. I know a good story that Alexander Schreiner told me that will amuse you, Jack. In 1948 or 1949, when the Tabernacle organ was being reconstructed, Schreiner wanted to develop a first-rate antiphonal organ in the back of the Tabernacle. There’s an organ there, but it’s in the basement and its sound is muffled. Alex wanted to bring it up into the east end of the balcony and enlarge it to match the style of the case of the main organ. President McKay, then a counselor to President George Albert Smith, presided over church music. When Schreiner talked to him about the antiphonal organ idea, President McKay said, “I don’t want an organ in the balcony, interrupting the [p. 187] sweep and flow of faces in that great assemblage. When I speak at conference, I want nothing breaking my view of the people.” Alex said, “President McKay, the trouble is you just don’t want to face the music.”
I think that story also illustrates the intimate relationship with the audience that existed before the introduction of television and those awful teleprompters.
There was a spontaneity, an aliveness. You weren’t sure what was going to happen next. You know J. Golden Kimball used to swear in his sermons, an occasional “hell” or “damn”—just ordinary swear words—and the people loved it. When it was announced that he was going to be the speaker, you could hear the audience shuffling their feet, sitting up a little straighter, getting on the edge of their seats.
Well, at one conference in 1933, B. H. Roberts, who was suffering from diabetes, gave a farewell address, a final conference sermon. It was very moving. People were weeping. Then J. Golden Kimball, Roberts’s colleague in the presidency of the Seventy, stood up next—you know that high-pitched monotone he talked in—and said, “I should worry about B. H. When he dies, I’ll get his job.” This gave B. H. and everyone else a good laugh. President Grant stood up, had the KSL radio microphone cut off, and dressed Kimball down, right from the stand. It was so humiliating for Kimball that he actually became ill. The first speech he gave after he recovered was in the University Ward. I was present and his first words were, “Well, I had it coming. I might have known that if I stuck my head in that lion’s mouth and twisted his tail, he’d bite me.”
Didn’t President Grant also serve notice on J. Golden that from then on he would have to write his speeches in advance?
Yes, and at the next conference session I was sitting in the balcony near the front on the south side, because I didn’t want to miss anything. When J. Golden stood up to speak, he took a folded manuscript out of his pocket and spread out the pages. The microphone carried the rattling sound all over the Tabernacle and this really meant something in those days when no one wrote out his sermon. They wouldn’t think of it, of course, because it would be a sign that they weren’t inspired. Well, J. Golden started: “The president and some of the other Brethren thought it would be a good idea if I would write my sermon out and submit it to them before I delivered it. So I’m going to have to read this sermon today.” There was an air of expectancy, and everyone was trying to keep a straight face as J. Golden began to read aloud. He started having trouble right away—tumbling over the words and fumbling with the pages. [p. 188] Finally he turned around to President Grant, who was sitting just behind him, and said, “Hell, Heber, I can’t read this damn thing.”
A truly irrepressible spirit! What did President Grant do?
He laughed as hard as anybody. I was sitting close enough to see him. His attempt to censor J. Golden Kimball’s sermons ended with that one effort. I know there are a lot of apocryphal J. Golden Kimball stories around, but this one is true. Let me tell you just one more. A very tall and thin man, he spoke at Obert Tanner’s Sunday school class in the University Ward, telling about a time in the Southern States Mission when he had only one dime. “I was saving this dime to buy stamps to write to my dear old mother, but if I did that, then I’d have to fast. I was never built for fasting, and I never fasted either if I had a dime for a cup of coffee.” He was a remarkable combination of humor and wisdom.
Well, Sterling, you’ve occasionally uttered heretical statements, and this brings to mind the move to excommunicate you. What started it?
When I came here in 1948, Heber C. Snell was publishing Ancient Israel: Its Story and Meaning. The church Commissioner of Education had commissioned him to do it as a textbook for the institutes and BYU. Snell had asked me to read the manuscript and make recommendations, which I did. I regarded it as a first-rate book. Snell was a fine scholar with a doctorate from the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, and he had worked for the church all his life. He was mildly heretical in his views but genuinely pious, deeply religious, very devoted to the church. This is an important part of the picture.
Well, before the manuscript was published, Franklin West, the Commissioner of Education, took it before the church education board, of which Joseph Fielding Smith was the executive officer. Apostle Smith didn’t like it and made a motion, which passed, to reject the book. The church would not publish it and it could not be used in any classroom, although it could be used as a reference work in church libraries. I got this from Dr. West himself.
Snell was devastated, of course. He had to have it published privately, but it sold very well. Later, I proposed to the University of Utah Press that they take it on, and they published a second edition.
What was your involvement in the Snell case?
Dr. West was very unhappy and greatly disappointed by this decision. Snell was what I would call the last of the Mormon liberals.
What do you mean by that?
I mean a Mormon in the liberal tradition—one who banks on the [p. 189]potential of human reason and believes that people and institutions can and will act reasonably. So, you see, Snell wanted to get together with Joseph Fielding Smith and resolve the matter. He said in his slow drawl, “Now Brother Joseph is a reasonable man; and if I can just get together with him so we can go over some of these things, he’ll see what I’m driving at. He won’t have this negative attitude toward my work.” Well, more than once I said, “Look, Heber, he is not a reasonable man, and there’s no sense in your getting together with him because the two of you simply don’t live intellectually in the same world.”
That’s exactly what we ran into when my wife Linda and I made an appointment to talk with apostles Dallin Oaks and Neal Maxwell about Linda and Val Avery’s biography of Emma Smith, Mormon Enigma. We assumed that we could reason together and dispatch our disagreements…
… and then found out that you couldn’t.
That’s right. They listened respectfully, but they did not budge. They couldn’t. The church leadership had already made up its mind about sanctioning the book and proscribing the authors. That was that. Principles of due process simply didn’t apply, as they saw it.
That’s what I mean. In Heber Snell’s case, he wrote to Apostle Smith proposing the kind of debate that they had in the early days of the church. He said, “It seems to me that it might be a good thing if you and I were to enter into that kind of discussion. If you were to state your objections to what I have written, then I could reply to you, and the correspondence could be published.” Well, that was naive of Snell, I think. Joseph Fielding Smith wrote back and said he would have to have the Brethren’s permission to engage in an epistolary give and take, and he certainly had no authority to get anything like this published.
A little later he wrote to Snell that the Brethren—I don’t know who—had advised him that no good would come of this, but he would be happy to meet with Snell in person to discuss these matters. Joseph Fielding then wrote to Snell and said, “I trust that you will not object if I have a witness present, Apostle Harold B. Lee.” Snell wrote back, “By all means, and I trust that you won’t mind my having a witness as well, Sterling McMurrin.”
So this is where you came in?
Joseph Fielding wrote back and said, “I think you should have a witness and I propose Sterling McMurrin.” By this time, 1952, Snell had published the book privately.
We met in Joseph Fielding Smith’s office, and Snell’s wife, Phoebe, [p. 190]was also present. Apostle Smith sat behind his desk, I sat directly opposite him, Snell was at one end of the desk, and Harold B. Lee was at the other. Now Joseph Fielding didn’t have the slightest inclination to take Snell seriously on anything he had to say, although he was very polite.
At one point he said, “Now, Dr. Snell, we know that your book is a good book in the eyes of the scholars of the world, a great book, but what you don’t seem to understand is that we care not one whit for the opinions of the scholars of the world.” It devastated Snell, who couldn’t believe what he had heard.
One of the things Joseph Fielding objected to was that Snell described the concept of God as developing over the course of the Old Testament. He wanted Snell to know that God didn’t develop. He couldn’t get the point that Snell was dealing not with God but with the concept of God held by the Hebrew people. He just kept harping on the fact that God is absolute. No change, no development. Snell said, “Well, Brother Smith, in some of your writings you’ve made it clear that God was once like we are and had to learn things and go through the processes of moral and intellectual development. So how can you say God is an absolute without the slightest change?” And Joseph Fielding said, “Well, that’s the point. He wasn’t absolute until he became God. From that point on, he was absolute.” Well, you can’t beat an argument like that, you know. When I asked Apostle Smith just what it was that he objected to in Snell’s book, he replied that “He never once mentions the Book of Mormon.”
That’s asking a lot from a book about the Old Testament! Well, I take it the discussion ended with pleasantries that masked underlying disagreements?
Disillusionment, too. It was a terribly destructive experience for Snell, who had worked faithfully in the church, obtained all of the learning he possibly could in the interest of the church, and was a scholar of genuine humility and piety. Snell was about seventy but in good health. Phoebe was very upset, too, but the two of us had to support Snell between us and walk him over to the Hotel Utah to get some food into him. He was simply speechless. It wasn’t just that they were rejecting his book; he had believed all along that there was a kind of fundamental rationality in the church leadership, and here he’d finally discovered that there was nothing of the sort.
Well, as we were going into the Hotel Utah, we encountered Charlie Redd and John C. Swenson, close friends, just up from Provo for the day. Swenson said, “Heber, you don’t look so good.” Heber didn’t look very well either, and he tried to say something and couldn’t. I explained, “We’ve just come from a long session with Joseph Fielding [p. 191] Smith.” Swenson understood the whole thing at once and said, “Now, Heber, you’ve been in this church a long time as long as I have and you ought to know better than to get into a poker game with Brother Joseph when he holds all the aces.”
That captures the situation perfectly. But how did this lead to your problems with the church, Sterling? Was it your participation in the meeting?
Yes and no. When we were leaving the meeting, Apostle Lee said to me, “President Smith and I would like very much to meet with you in the future, if you’re willing to meet with us.” I said, “I’ll be very happy to.”
A few weeks afterward, Apostle Lee sent me a letter reminding me that I’d agreed to meet with him and Apostle Smith, and he suggested a time. But something came up and the matter was delayed for several months. Then Apostle Lee wrote again—
Why did you two write each other when you had phones on your desks and were only two miles apart?
Just to put it on the record, I suppose. He said, “We’re interested in discussing a number of things with you, including the meetings being held at the University of Utah for the purpose of criticizing us.”
He meant the Swearing Elders?
Yes. So we arranged another session in Joseph Fielding’s office. This occurred during the summer of 1952 and our session probably lasted three hours. In the course of the discussion, referring to the Swearing Elders’ sessions, Apostle Lee said, “I’m interested in knowing what criticisms you have of President Smith,” and Apostle Smith added, “And I’m interested in knowing what criticisms you have of Apostle Lee.” I was a little brutal in my reply, but I had to be honest. I said, “To be frank, Elder Lee, I don’t remember your name ever being mentioned.” Then I said, “Now President Smith”—he was president of the Quorum of the Twelve—”you’re the leading theologian of the church and the Church Historian, and you speak and write a great deal. You know very well that when people get together to discuss Mormonism, you’re going to be mentioned frequently and criticized a great deal. I’ll be happy to give you examples, but first let me say that these same people who criticize you have a great admiration for your moral and intellectual courage and your independence of mind. You say what you think, and you don’t care what anyone else thinks when you say it.”
What was his response?
He smiled and said, “Thank you. I appreciate that.” So I continued, “Just as an example, I attended a recent commencement convocation at [p. 192] the University of Utah institute where you were the speaker, and you were there, too, Apostle Lee.” Joseph Fielding interrupted and asked, “Were you there? I didn’t see you.” I said, “Yes, I was there. I came especially because you were the speaker. You discussed the Negroes and you said that in your opinion—” and he cut me off right there, interrupted me. He had said at the institute, “In my opinion, the Negroes are getting just what they deserve.” But now he went on to say: “As far as we’re concerned, Negroes are entitled to full civil rights, employment benefits, and educational opportunities.”
He skirted the priesthood issue—the denial of priesthood ordination and temple privileges to African American Mormons?
Apostle Smith called critics who raised such questions, or met with the Swearing Elders, “the educated people of the church” and Harold B. Lee called them the “intellectuals of the church.” Both of these terms grated on me, but I must say that Joseph Fielding was more open and generous than you might expect. For instance, I said, “I’d like to know for sure what you’re getting at. Do you mean that you think we shouldn’t be meeting together to discuss issues in Mormonism?” He said, “Oh, no, we wouldn’t for a moment suggest that you discontinue your meetings. You educated men of the church have just as much right to get together and discuss these things as any of the rest of us.”
Then Harold B. Lee broke in, “But Sterling—” he was my second cousin and always addressed me by name—”you know what the church teaches. Wouldn’t it be possible at the end of every session for you to summarize the position of the church and simply remind everyone what the beliefs of the church are?”
In other words, keep them on the strait and narrow?
That’s it exactly. I said, “That would be an utter impossibility. In the first place these people all know what the position of the church is. They don’t have to be told. Furthermore, most of them are BYU professors and half of them are old enough to be my father. It would be ludicrous for me to do such a thing.” They didn’t press me any further. I gave them a rather comprehensive picture of our Swearing Elders sessions, the speakers, subjects, etc., without mentioning the names of those who attended, and at no time did they ask me to identify anyone. But as we parted, they said, “We’d like to carry on further discussion with respect to your own personal beliefs, if you’re willing.” I said that I’d be very happy to meet again.
You did meet with them, too, and talked about your personal religious beliefs?
Yes, we met again in the summer of 1952. I just laid my heresies [p. 193] out from start to finish. They didn’t have to ask me many questions, because I said, “Well, we might as well start at the beginning with Adam and Eve. I don’t believe they existed. I don’t believe there was such a place as the Garden of Eden. I think the whole story is a cultural myth. I don’t believe in the fall of man and man’s estrangement from God.” They just sat there, obviously shocked, and waited to see what would come next. So I went on until I got to the divinity of Christ. I didn’t believe in that either, which must have been a major shock to them. But I pointed out, if you don’t believe in the Fall, then there’s no point in believing in a savior. But I did say, “I don’t want you to think that I regard Jesus as just a great teacher. He was a man of enormous spiritual insight.” I laid it out so there was no mistaking what I meant.
Then Joseph Fielding asked, “Well, what about Joseph Smith? What about the first vision?” Well, I was coming to that, you know. I said, “President Smith, my views are essentially naturalistic.” He wanted to know what I meant by naturalistic. I said, “Well, some people believe in evil spirits.” “I do,” he said. “I know you do,” I said, “and that’s why I’m taking this example. Let’s assume that someone comes into your outer office and is behaving very strangely. You might go out there and say, ‘He’s possessed of an evil spirit. Let’s lay our hands on him and cast out the devil.’ But I might look at the same man and say, ‘He’s out of his mind. Let’s get him to a hospital.’ The first explanation is supernaturalistic and the second one is naturalistic.”
Let’s go back to the origins of the Mormon church. Joseph Smith’s first vision was the anchor for the whole movement. You were treading on the most sacred ground.
Yes, and I said, “President Smith, we have to face the fact that your great-grandmother, Lucy Mack Smith, made it pretty clear in her book about Joseph Smith that everything Joseph saw in the first vision was already believed by members of the family—and I’m not referring to the uncensored original version but to the censored version of the book that the church itself published in 1902, the one that has your father’s picture in the front. It has a foreword assuring members of the church that the old version was taken out of print and that this version was correct. Most of the members of the censoring committee were your relatives—at least, most of their names were Smith. Your father’s statement was that the book had been examined by members of the family and was true.”
That was about as close to home as you could get, Sterling. Did mercy begin to cross your mind?
Well, not yet. I told them, as well, that I didn’t believe Joseph Smith [p. 194]had actually seen God. I raised a question with them about the matter of seeing with your spiritual eyes, rather than your physical eyes, but they didn’t want to discuss it.
Well, we went from there to the Book of Mormon, and I assured them that I didn’t believe it was authentic. They didn’t ask any specific questions, just went on to other things, asking me to tell them more about what I believed and didn’t believe.
How did you feel about this examination? People react to such experiences in very different ways.
It was a very profound experience for me. It enabled me to explain my heresies to two men who were future presidents of the church and let them know exactly what I thought about matters basic to our faith. Afterward I felt as if a great burden had been lifted from me and I had become a genuinely free person.
Had you ever felt that way before?
Yes, on two occasions—when I left church employment and when I passed my doctoral examinations. But the third and most memorable time was when I walked out of Joseph Fielding Smith’s office that afternoon.
Joseph Fielding was most gracious to you when you left his office, which must have added to your sense of satisfaction.
Both of them were gracious. Joseph Fielding said, “Dr. McMurrin (he always addressed me as Doctor), in spite of your telling us of your disbeliefs and heresies, we want you to know that you have the Holy Ghost.” Those were his exact words.
That’s a remarkable story and, I must say, a high tribute to you both.
I thought that was very generous of him. You’d hardly expect that today. I liked him, you know. Always liked Joseph Fielding Smith, as much as I differed with him. Then he went on, “You know things about the views and opinions of the educated people of the church that we need to know.” He pointed to his door and said, “My door is always open to you, if you would be willing to come in and talk to us about these things, because we need to know more about them.”
This image is not the one most people have of Joseph Fielding Smith.
Not at all. Well, as I left, Harold B. Lee walked out to the top of the stairs with me. He was very pleasant, but he said in rather ominous tones, “Sterling, you could do great things for this church, or you can be a very, very dangerous man in the church.” “Well,” I said, “I have no desire to do the church any harm. I don’t want to be a danger to [p. 195]anyone.” They had asked if I would meet with them again, and I told them that I would. But we didn’t get together again.
Oh, I had many conversations with each of them after that, but never as a threesome. An amusing incident occurred a night or two after Joseph Fielding was named president of the church. We received a phone call from his wife, Jesse Evans Smith, who said: “Sterling, Joseph wanted me to tell you that he doesn’t want you and Natalie to take us off your list.” I said, “You tell President Smith that as long as you keep us on your list, we’ll keep you on ours.” This was one of many pleasant encounters we had with both of them in those years.
Now, would you say more about your emotional reaction to your unburdening with apostles Smith and Lee. Why did you feel so free?
I had similar feelings when I heard that President Spencer Kimball had reversed the church’s prohibition on granting the priesthood to African Americans. That action lifted a moral burden off the soul of the entire church. I think you’ve probably had the same feelings, Jack. Haven’t there been occasions when you have felt a great weight lifted from you and you suddenly became free?
Whenever I’ve taken time to write and publish my beliefs about the essential things in life, I have felt liberated. It started with a paper I read at the Sunstone Symposium in 1979, published in Dialogue in 1980, called “Personal Conscience and Priesthood Authority.” That process of sorting out my philosophical and religious bearings by writing about them is something I have needed to do periodically as my life has continued to unfold.
I can understand that. There’s something liberating about letting it be known, not just to yourself but in a sense publicly, what you think. When I left the session with apostles Smith and Lee, I actually felt a kind of physical buoyancy. It was a very strange feeling. It shows the close involvement of the mind with the body. I thought, “Here I am, really as free as the birds.” I wasn’t about to fly away, but it had a very profound effect on me. Having told them very honestly what I did not believe, I felt that there was no need to be concerned about this matter any longer. God already knew the level of my heresy. I had dealt with that matter earlier.
In that conversation with apostles Lee and Smith, you also said a great deal about what you do believe and hold sacred, including personal integrity, freedom, and respect for the truth as you see it. That had as much—or more—to do with your exhilaration as did the casting off of your disbelief. Well, what happened next?
After returning from my Ford Fellowship in New York in the summer of 1953, I began to hear from a variety of sources that I was in trouble with the church. No one in any position of authority ever called my attention to it, but people who were friendly toward me told me that they had word that I was going to be excommunicated. These were people in my Salt Lake City ward and they encouraged me to look into it. So in the spring of 1954 I made an appointment with my bishop. He was in the employ of the church at a rather high level, something to do with the welfare system. He didn’t like me and didn’t take to any of my stuff, but he hadn’t previously made an issue of it. I initiated the session with him, but he began in a very formal way: “It is my ecclesiastical duty to investigate you to determine whether you should be brought to trial for excommunication.” Later he said, “We haven’t been able to find anyone who is willing to testify against you so I’m wondering if you could give us the names of some people we could use as witnesses.” Now, Jack, I’m telling you the truth.
I have never heard of anything like that, anywhere!
That didn’t seem to be the proper way to go about it, but I said, “Well, I’ve taught hundreds of students at the university in philosophy courses that have some bearing on religion, and I’ve taught Sunday school in this ward. Surely you can find someone!” He shook his head and said, “No, we haven’t been able to get anyone who will testify against you.” “Well,” I said, “I’ll give you the names of two members who are thoroughly acquainted with the depth of my heresies. President Joseph Fielding Smith and Apostle Harold B. Lee.” He said, “Now, you know we can’t use them.” “Well,” I said, “I think they’d be good witnesses and they are the best I can think of.”
He could hardly argue with that.
It was clear to me from what others had told me that this movement originated with President Smith. I told the bishop that President Smith was engineering the whole thing, but he denied it. How could he have admitted it? He was clearly operating under instructions—instructions which he thoroughly enjoyed, I might say.
Sterling, what was your involvement in the church at that time? Were you still teaching Sunday school?
No, a couple of years earlier, before this man became bishop, I had taught the adult Sunday school class. He attended, but I could tell he didn’t like my stuff. I taught it for six weeks, and somebody complained, so the stake president visited my class along with one of his counselors,[p. 197]Gordon B. Hinckley, who is now president of the church. Hinckley was very pleasant. It was a large class and I didn’t know the stake president, so at the end of the class, I stepped over to shake hands with him. He said, “Now, Brother McMurrin, we don’t want you here confusing these people like this.” I said, “Well, I certainly don’t want to confuse these people, so I won’t be here anymore.” He said, “Now, I’m not asking you to quit.” I said, “I know you’re not, but I’m quitting. You just get yourself someone else to teach this class.” That was the end of that. It created quite a hassle in the ward, I might say, and the bishop, a very decent person, was entirely on my side.
Do you have any idea what the stake president objected to?
No idea whatsoever. It could have been almost anything, but no one ever told me what my crimes against the church were.
Concern began to spread among your friends by this time?
Prior to my session with the new bishop, I hadn’t mentioned this development to anyone except perhaps George Boyd, who lived in the same ward. Obert Tanner and I shared an office at the university and had been close friends for years, so I knew he’d want to know what was going on. I didn’t make much of it, but Obert was very concerned; and as nearly as I can piece it together, Obert told his great and good friend Apostle Adam S. Bennion, and Bennion told David O. McKay, who had been president of the church since 1951. To make a very long story short, Obert told me that President McKay wanted me to write a statement about what was going on, which I did.
Meanwhile you met with the bishop a second time?
He was still trying to find something on me. He said I wasn’t paying a full tithe. “Well,” I said, “are you going to put everybody on trial who’s not paying a full tithe?” That was the end of that, but he asked, “Sterling, this matter has gotten all the way up to the general authorities. Have you been talking to them?” I said, “No, I haven’t.” And I hadn’t—not since that 1952 meeting. He concluded this conversation with, “Now, you know, I haven’t guaranteed that we’re going to put you on trial. All I said is that I’m supposed to investigate you to see if you should be put on trial.” That was the last session with the bishop.
So it never escalated to the point of a church court? The stories, you know, have entered the realm of folklore!
I’ve heard and read accounts that a date was actually set for the trial and then got called off, but I’ve never been aware that any date was set. There was never any trial, although it was perfectly obvious that there was going to be one. I have heard many reports over the years that I had [p. 198] been excommunicated. I still hear such rumors from time to time!
Well, sooner or later, it may be true. But there is more to the story, isn’t there? Why was the trial called off?.
I was at home for lunch just a few days later when I got a call from William Kent, a member of our philosophy faculty. He was rather excited and said, “Someone just called here for you—said he’s David O. McKay. It may just be a practical joke, but I gave him your home phone number.” Well, within a couple of minutes I received a call from President McKay himself, who said, “I want to come and see you, and I’d like to come now.” “Well, President McKay,” I said, “I can’t let you do that. I just read in the newspaper that you’re home sick.” He said, “I am home, but I’m not that sick.” “I’ll come to your home,” I said. “I’ll come and see you. Shall I come to your home or to your office?” He said, “No, you’re not to come to see me. I am coming to see you.” He was adamant. President McKay was over eighty years old then, but he still did his own driving. So I said, “How would it be if we met on neutral ground?” He laughed.
How well did you know him personally at this time?
He had performed the wedding ceremony for Natalie and me, and we’d stayed fairly close across the sixteen years since then. I proposed the old Union Building, now Gardner Hall, which was not far from his home on South Temple. I beat him there by about five minutes and arranged to get the Auerbach Room unlocked. President McKay showed up promptly, and we spent much of the afternoon together. He did most of the talking.
How did he open the conversation?
He took out of his pocket that statement I’d written, which Obert had given to Adam S. Bennion. In the last sentence or two I said something like this, “I realize that a person of my beliefs does not have any claim on membership in the church.” President McKay said, “Now, just what is it that a person is not permitted to believe without being asked to leave this church? Just what is it? Is it evolution? I hope not, because I believe in evolution.”
Did he have a twinkle in his eye as he said these things?
Perhaps, but he was angry. There’s no question about that. I’ve never felt such warm support. He said, “They can’t do this to you. They can’t do this to you!” I kind of smiled and said, “Well now, President McKay, you know more than I about what they can do, but it looks like this is what they are going to do.” He said, “They cannot do this to you!” There was a pause, then he said, “All I will say is that if they put you on trial [p. 199]for excommunication, I will be there as the first witness in your behalf.” I said, “Well, now, I can’t imagine anyone having a better witness for such an occasion.”
Did President Smith’s name come up?
No, not explicitly, but there was no question that we both knew who was involved.
What did you discuss?
The evolution issue, for one thing. And whenever he said “they,” he pointed up. President Smith’s office was above and opposite his in the Church Administration Building. It was obvious that he knew about the meetings with President Smith and Apostle Lee, for he said, “I’m going to give you a piece of advice. If those men—and he pointed up again toward Joseph Smith’s office—try to get you in a corner again and badger you with questions about your religious beliefs and your faith, you just refuse to answer them because what you believe is none of their business.”
Finally, he said, “I have only one piece of advice to give you. It’s the advice that an uncle of mine gave me at the railroad station when I left for my mission to Scotland. He shook my hand and said, ‘David, you just think and believe as you please.’ Now that’s my advice to you, Sterling. You just think and believe as you please.” Well, he was so positive that I was beginning to feel a bit guilty. I wasn’t half as clean as he seemed to be making me out to be.
You’d gone from sinner to saint mighty fast here. It’s mainly in the eye of the beholder.
Very fast, very, very fast. He wanted to know about the situation out in my ward. “Kind of rigid people, are they?” he asked, meaning the bishop and the stake president. I guess he’d heard this from his son Edward, who lived in my ward. But I said, “Now, President McKay, I think I should tell you that I’ve probably contributed to the problem. In Sunday school class a year ago, the teacher kept talking about our belief that the Negroes are under a divine curse and I finally raised my hand and said, ‘Now I want you to know that I don’t believe Negroes are under any kind of curse. I’m not interested in arguing about it, but I want it known that I don’t believe that.’ I think that irritated some of the locals.”
Did President McKay’s reply lead to a discussion of the situation of blacks in the church?
Yes. He said, “I’m glad you said that because I don’t believe it either. As far as I am concerned, it is not now nor has it ever been a doctrine [p. 200] of this church that the Negroes are under a divine curse. We believe that we have scriptural precedent”—by which he meant a passage in the Pearl of Great Price “for withholding the priesthood from Negroes, but they will eventually receive it. This is not a matter of doctrine. It is simply a practice and it is going to change.” Well, I thought that was a historic statement.
It was, indeed. I wish he had broadcast it!
I said, “Well, now, President McKay, you’re well aware that large numbers of people in the church believe that there is an established doctrine that the Negroes are cursed by God. Wouldn’t it be possible for you to make an official statement on this matter so the people will understand? This is something that needs to be done.”
I’m on the edge of my chair, Sterling, what did he say?
I was on the edge my chair because I was in hopes, you know, for such a statement. He was silent for what seemed to be a long moment, then he said, “All I will say is that there is no such doctrine in this church. It is simply a practice, and that’s all there is to it.”
What constraint do you suppose caused him to pause? And why do you think he failed to change the practice?
Well, this is only speculation, but I think it was resistance from other general authorities. Hugh B. Brown was a brand new general authority—an assistant to the Quorum of the Twelves—in the fall of 1953. He became an apostle in the spring of 1958 and wrote to me at that time expressing unusually liberal views for a high church official. He wanted to extend the priesthood to blacks. But his position soon precipitated serious opposition from other apostles.
President Brown was very frank in stating his views, too.
Yes, and he strongly favored the priesthood for blacks. But he let me know in no uncertain terms that there was strong opposition within the quorum. If there hadn’t been, I’m confident that because of his genuine liberality, and compassion, President McKay would have taken steps to give blacks full fellowship in the church while he was president.
So that remarkable pause, there in the Auerbach Room in the spring of ’54, may have been prompted by President McKay pondering whether he could make a statement on the “divine curse” issue—and get the quorum to endorse it.
Speculation, of course, but maybe so. Now later on, in the 1960s, I became involved as a liaison between the church and the NAACP, when the NAACP was putting pressure on the church for its failure to [p. 201]actively pursue the cause of civil rights. It planned a large-scale demonstration against the church at the October 1964 general conference. I arranged for the NAACP leaders to meet with Nathan Eldon Tanner and Hugh B. Brown, President McKay’s two counselors, and their discussion went well. At Tanner’s and Brown’s request, I wrote a statement which, with President McKay’s approval, President Brown read in opening the Sunday morning session of general conference. It affirmed the church’s support of full civil rights for blacks and everyone else.
As I recall, however, full religious fellowship for blacks wasn’t part of that statement.
That’s right, it dealt entirely with civil rights. Even so, as a result of President Brown’s reading the statement, the NAACP called off the planned demonstration. The Salt Lake Tribune featured the story, as did the national news media. Later there were editorials, even in the Deseret News, describing President Brown’s statement as church policy. Not until 1978, after President McKay and his two successors Joseph Fielding Smith and Harold B. Lee were all three dead, did President Spencer W. Kimball extend priesthood privileges to all faithful males. It was a dramatic fourteen-year episode.
With a welcome outcome. Now I want to go back to the Auerbach Room in the spring of ’54. What other issues did you and President McKay talk about?
Evolution, civil rights, and priesthood for blacks were the substantive issues. We spent the rest of the time discussing the freedom of individuals to say and think as they please. President McKay believed very strongly in individual rights, while at the same time being absolutely loyal to the institutional church. I saw some conflict—or at least some potential conflict—between those two positions. I honestly think that he didn’t. President McKay was a man of great and genuine love for others, a man of extraordinary compassion and love for humanity.
I think I sensed that as a young outsider investigating Mormonism at about the same time. He certainly inspired me, as did Hugh B. Brown. They are the reason I took the church seriously and eventually joined it.
President McKay functioned in a matrix of interpersonal relationships. I don’t think he approached things primarily on an institutional basis. He was a great leader for the institutional church, but he didn’t seem to be an organization type. Now his counselor J. Reuben Clark was an organization leader. I don’t mean this as a criticism of him, but he thought in terms of the institution. I don’t see President Clark, for [p. 202] instance, driving out to some dissident’s house to discuss his heretical views in a friendly, positive way. Instead I see him as appraising the political and social effect on the church of a given move and deciding on that basis what action to take. I suspect that he was one source of the negative policy on the blacks, although I’m not absolutely sure. This much I am sure of: that without President McKay in leadership over a long period of time, the change of policy that came under President Kimball could not have had the immediate transforming effect which it had on the Mormon people.
And by that you mean the immediate and widespread acceptance?
Absolutely. President McKay could have achieved the same widespread acceptance, but I think he paved the way. Now to get back to the issue of individual freedom, he was a teacher, you know, and at one time head of the church academy in Ogden—which has become Weber State University. By personality, too, he was very much inclined to give his colleagues and other individuals complete freedom to write and say what they thought.
It seems that President Kimball, among the presidents in recent decades, was much more like McKay in spirit and style than any of the others.
What you say about President Kimball is absolutely true. I think he was more like President McKay in temperament, disposition, and personal style than either Joseph Fielding Smith or Harold B. Lee. Joseph Fielding Smith was, of course, a theologian and historian, and he concentrated on those things. I don’t know very much about his administration—it wasn’t very long—but Harold B. Lee told me that “In matters having to do with theology, I look to Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith; and in matters having to do with church affairs and government, I look to J. Reuben Clark.”
Now back to President McKay. He said that you didn’t need to explain your views to anyone. Yet when you had been so forthcoming with apostles Smith and Lee a year or two earlier, you described a great sense of freedom. How did you play that issue thereafter?
I didn’t take his advice. I appreciated what he said very much, of course; but I told him, “I have never objected to questions about my religious beliefs if they’re within a decent context.” Sometimes you get somebody who is just being nasty, but these two apostles were very generous.
How do you look back on this brush with excommunication now?
It was just an interesting episode except for the session with President McKay. As you can see, however, that was an important experience for [p. 203] me. But there is an aspect of the story that I didn’t know about until much later. A half dozen years after this incident, while I was still harboring the friendliest of feelings toward President Smith, a former student of mine wrote to President Smith to complain that I was a dangerous apostate. He asked President Smith why I was ever permitted to teach in the church, and why I hadn’t been properly excommunicated. Well, if I’d known this man had those views, I could have given his name to my bishop when he was looking for witnesses! President Smith wrote back to him on Quorum of the Twelve letterhead and said, “Sterling McMurrin is a betrayer of the church and its teachings. No one knows this better than I. But there is nothing I can do about it ….Why not present your case to the First Presidency?”1
It appears that higher authority, namely President David McKay, had the situation well in hand.
He did. But I knew nothing of this correspondence until several years later when my friend George Boyd mentioned it to me. It must have been obvious from my reaction to the news that I hadn’t known anything about it, so George sent me a copy of both letters. He said everybody in the LDS institutes of religion seemed to have copies of the correspondence, so I deserved copies too!
I always marvel at the efficiency of underground communications in large organizations. There are no secrets, no matter how hard a bureaucracy tries to find and seal the leaks. But what if your case had come to an excommunication trial, Sterling?
Oh, I would have attended the trial, by all means. I wouldn’t want to stay away and get kicked out in absentia. I’d want to be in on the thing. I would want a witness there to observe what went on, but I would not want anyone to testify in my behalf, nor would I make any argument. I would simply say, “Now, look, you people running the church have the authority. If you don’t want people like me in the church, you should excommunicate me. It’s your decision to make.” I mean that very sincerely.
But you must feel that the church should make room for people like you? Why wouldn’t you argue on your own behalf?
That may seem strange, but I no longer think the church should necessarily make room for people like me. I did when I was young and [p. 204] idealistic. I thought the church belonged to everyone, that it was as much the church of the unorthodox as the church of the orthodox; but I no longer think that. The church is an institution which is owned and operated by the people who pay the tithing and who do the believing; if they think dissidents like me don’t belong in it, I wouldn’t argue with them. I wouldn’t be silent, of course, if they wanted to ask questions I’d give them honest answers.
Okay, but I also know you have a very deep, heartfelt spirituality, although you’re doctrinally unorthodox. Would you not want to express that side of yourself to them as well?
Well, if it didn’t come up in the course of the conversation, I might be inclined to say, “You haven’t asked me whether I love the church or my fellow men or whether I believe in God.” I should mention that, during my conversation with apostles Smith and Lee, I started by saying, “Now I must tell you that there are many of the teachings of the church which I do not believe.” Joseph Fielding interrupted me at that point and said, “Dr. McMurrin, let me explain that in this church a person has the freedom to believe whatever he wants to as long as he accepts certain fundamentals.” But I answered, “President Smith, I know what the fundamentals are, and they are the things I don’t believe.”
His fundamentals were not your fundamentals.
That’s a good way of putting it.
Adam S. Bennion has the reputation of being a liberal apostle, and I’m assuming some kind of compatibility with President McKay or President McKay wouldn’t have ordained him an apostle in 1953.
I don’t know anything about that, of course; but I recall one experience with Adam S. Bennion that makes me chuckle a little. It would have been during the middle 1950s—he died in 1958—but he wanted me to come down and see him at the Church Administration Building. I can’t even remember what it was all about, but at one point, he said, “I’d like to have us talk to President McKay about this.” So he phoned President McKay and then told me, “President McKay would like us to come down to his office. Now we don’t want to be seen, so we won’t go down the main stairway.”
Meaning he didn’t want to be seen with you?
That’s my assumption. We went down a rear stairway and through a couple of offices. Some secretaries saw us, but we got in there without any general authorities seeing us.
[p. 205] What did you talk about with President McKay?
Damned if I can remember. I just remember a lot of laughter.
How active were you in church after these events?
Not very active for some time. But early in the summer of 1959 I was asked again to teach a Sunday school class. Natalie and I had moved and we were in a different ward. The bishop was an acquaintance from college and he came by to ask me if I’d teach the adult course. I told him that this assignment was not even a possibility. We had a long discussion, and he was very persuasive—said his request had all been cleared higher up. Now just who he had to clear it with, I’m not sure. I told him that if I were to teach I wouldn’t follow a manual—that if I’d written the manual myself I would never pay any attention to it as a teacher, and the only thing I would be interested in teaching was the Mormon philosophy of religion. He said that was perfectly all right.
It sounds like a softening-up exercise.
It certainly was. Within a few minutes the three members of the Sunday school superintendency called on me. They insisted and were very persuasive. So, finally, against my better judgment, I agreed to do it for six weeks. After that time I would be moderating seminars and lecturing for the Aspen Institute in Colorado. “That’s fine,” they said. “We’ll just get a substitute for you while you’re gone, and you can pick up where you left off when you get back.”
And how did it work out?
The teaching was a very pleasant experience. It was in the chapel and the bishop attended at times. Carl Christensen, who was head of research at the university and was on the Sunday school general board, attended. The bishop told me that people came from as far away as Davis County to attend the class. So when I went to Aspen, they got a substitute; and when I returned I called the Sunday school superintendent, an FBI man, to tell him I was back and ready to return to class. He said, “Well, we liked the interim teacher, and we have asked him to stay, so we won’t need you to teach anymore.”
As bluntly as that?
Yes, just as bluntly as that. He was a little flustered by my call and just blurted it out. Anyway, I said, “Well, now, let’s understand that I’m not resigning. I’m being fired. Just why am I being thrown out?” You’re not going to believe this, Jack.
[p. 206] Try me.
“Well,” he said, “this class was not doing well until you took it, and then attendance increased until it was very large. But when you left, it collapsed. We don’t want that to happen again. If you take the class back, it’ll build up again, and then you’ll go off somewhere and it’ll collapse again.”
That’s astonishing! Did he expect you to believe that was a reason to void your teaching?
I told him that I was well aware that somebody had told them to get rid of me, and he protested that it wasn’t so, but he wasn’t convincing. I just let the matter drop, but I made up my mind, firmly, never again to take on any kind of teaching position in the church. I’ve occasionally given talks for special occasions but under no circumstances would I take on a teaching position—and of course, no one asks me to any more.
Wasn’t it in 1957 and 1958 that you gave the lectures at Ohio State, USU, the University of Utah, and BYU that were published by the University of Utah Press as The Philosophical Foundations of the Mormon Religion?
Yes, the presidents of these three Utah universities were involved in a cooperative venture—all of them were attending a meeting of the National Council of Christians and Jews in Salt Lake City. The question came up about what might be done to further understanding among the various religions. Ernest L. Wilkinson, then president of BYU, proposed a cooperative lecture series to be sponsored by the three Utah universities. President Olpin tossed our end of the project over to me, and I handled it for several years.
Your lecture at Ohio State was a little different?
Yes. Harold B. Lee informed me that the church had been invited to present a lecture on the Mormon religion at some special conference at Ohio State. He asked if I’d be willing to prepare and give it. He didn’t lay down any ground rules—just asked me if I’d go. So I gave pretty much the same address that I had given in the Utah series.
If I understand your situation in the late 1950s, then, Apostle Lee was inviting you to represent the church at a prestigious national forum, President McKay was assuring you of your right as a church member to think and speak as you pleased, and, all the while, President Smith was trying to get you kicked out altogether! What finally happened, at least with the Utah lecture series?
Oh, it came to an end, as all good things do—although you might be interested in one detail from its last days. The lecturers went to each [p. 207] institution in turn; some of them were imported and some were our own people. There were some failures; but on the whole, I think it was a very successful series on world religions. Now at one of the planning meetings, I complained to the BYU representative that BYU wasn’t giving us their best people. I named two or three very strong BYU people in religion who I thought ought to be included in the lecture program. He said, “The people you want simply could not be approved for this series. Not only must the president of the university approve the lecturer, it has to be approved by the board of trustees. The people you want are simply not approvable.”
Not quite what you were used to dealing with in a university.
I should say not. As much as I was aware that BYU controlled its faculty and managed intellectual issues, I was still shocked. The president of the University of Utah used to come to most of these lectures and enjoy them, but he wouldn’t have dreamed of suggesting who should be on the program. We had full autonomy. I arranged for people from outside the university who had expertise on Judaism, Catholicism, and Protestantism, and so forth, not only for this series but for other occasions. We also sponsored a TV program on Sundays over a commercial station on the great issues in religion, which I moderated.
One more question, Sterling, about these events during the 1950s. Was it public knowledge that you had these differences with President Smith and Elder Lee?
I mentioned the meetings only to a very few of my most intimate friends, but word always gets around. For instance, just at the time that the rumors about excommunication were rolling around, Homer Durham, then vice-president, and A. Ray Olpin asked me to become dean of University College. (We later renamed this the College of Letters and Science. It included the colleges of science, behavioral science, humanities, and three ROTC units—about half the university.) President Olpin was a very active Mormon. After we’d had our conversation and I’d agreed to take the position, he said, “By the way, is it true that you have been excommunicated?” He’d heard this in a barber shop downtown. “The last time I got my hair cut there,” he said, “someone said they were making you an apostle. Then someone else said, ‘No, he’s been excommunicated.”‘
You wouldn’t have relished either fate, Sterling. What about the attitude of ward members?
We were living in a ward of young married people at the time, and I’ll have to admit that some of them looked askance at me. Young people [p. 208] are far more bigoted than elderly people, you know.
I have certainly found this to be true in my neighborhood ward.
Yes, my children, even up into high school, felt various kinds of discrimination from the other kids and some of their teachers; but I’ve had the finest of relationships with people in our present neighborhood. Most of them are aware that I’m a thoroughgoing heretic, but it doesn’t seem to bother them. I go to church occasionally, but I never volunteer to say anything in class or make comments, other than pleasantries. Occasionally a teacher will call on me to say something, but I just shake my head and say, “Well, I don’t know anything about it,” and let it go at that. Natalie and I enjoy the people in our ward and stake, including the officials.
For years you were the most frequently quoted Latter-day Saint by the national media when issues like the ordination of blacks came up, but I’ve never noticed any malice toward the church, even when you’ve been most critical. I’m sure that has something to do with the good relationships you’ve enjoyed.
Well, I don’t feel any malice toward the church or anyone in it. I do love the church. People sometimes find that hard to believe. Here I am, a person who doesn’t fully approve of much that the church does, and strongly disapproves of some things, and who thinks that a fair number of its fundamental teachings are sheer nonsense. It’s hard for them to believe that I can have good will toward the church, but I do. My ancestors chose the church. I was born in it and reared in it. It’s just part of my make-up. But of course, I don’t think of churches as being true or false. Churches are good or bad or better or worse, but not true or false. Being a Mormon is simply being part of a family, and you know even the stray sheep in the family can love the family and even defend it.
And is often loved by the family.
The church is a culture, a community, and for me it is my territory. Its people are my crowd. These mountains and our history—the whole works I just feel a part of it all.
You are a part of it all. What changes in members’ attitudes toward authority have you noticed over the last thirty years?
From the standpoint of intellectual openness and the freedom of the people to be candid and honest, there’s no question that things are getting worse.
Frankly, I think the intellectual life of the church—in terms of openness and free discussion—has been going downhill since the deaths of B. H. Roberts and James E. Talmage in 1933. On the other hand, [p. 209] the intellectual achievements of Mormons and faithful members of the church have been going uphill. That’s part of the problem. There are now many well-trained and really competent young scholars, mainly historians, who are coming up with things that seem to frighten the general authorities. That may be one of the reasons why this authoritarian censorship is developing. I know you’ve given this considerable thought, Jack. Your wife Linda is one of those historians, one of the best. What are your views about these trends, Jack?
When I came into the church in 1962, David O. McKay was president and Hugh B. Brown was making clarion calls for intellectual honesty and free inquiry. I’m aware now, but I wasn’t then, that this was hardly representative of Mormon culture! I see two factors contributing to the current anti-intellectualism: First, the sheer size of the church means that the hierarchy is more removed from members. General authorities don’t deal with ordinary people; they deal with their chosen subordinates (other general authorities and stake presidents) and with career bureaucrats who manage the massive system. Second, again because of the size, the general authorities are overwhelmed with official duties. They have no time to read and think. They are also cut off from real people, real give-and-take, fresh ideas. Power and deference are crippling. The more power, the greater the danger … and the loss. The person with power is the last one to see this.
You are quite right, Jack. The point you make about the size of the church is very important, because one consequence of growth has been the enormous proliferation of the bureaucracy. When I was in seminary and institute work, one man oversaw each branch. Each one had a secretary, there was an accountant or bookkeeper, and one person, maybe two, who did some research and arranged for publications. Well, about 1982, the Commissioner of Education, Hal Eyring, now an apostle, wanted to get together with me. There he was in that tall office building—in which the Church Education System occupied two whole floors!
One consequence of the small size when you were involved would have been the quality of personal contacts you had.
There’s no question about it. It was very personal. The Commissioner of Education and the Director of Seminaries and their wives became our very close friends. Dr. Franklin West and I spent many hours talking about church affairs. Lynn Bennion and I spent a great deal of time together, too. He knew I wasn’t orthodox, but he seemed to know me in a way that transcended my beliefs. What they knew about me would get a person thrown out today.
[p. 210] I’m concerned about the attempts of the church leaders to maintain the mythology of the early church period; but I wonder if all this emphasis on orthodoxy and obedience isn’t causing a reaction as dangerous as the mythology in the first place.
I think you’re absolutely right. And it’s so unnecessary. The church can weather any danger now. It’s a going concern. It rolls on and on, and nothing is going to slow it down. It can be seriously injured only by its own authoritarianism. Things are going to seriously injure many individuals in it, but the institution will roll on. I have to tell you something our mutual friend Bill Mulder told me back in the early 1950s. He was walking from the Church Administration Building at 47 East South Temple to the Hotel Utah when he passed one of the elder statesmen of the church, who then worked in the Church Historian’s office. Without even glancing at him, the older man said, “Isn’t it amazing the way the money just keeps rolling in?”
Well, it is amazing, the solidarity of the Mormon people, their devotion to one another and to the institution, and the sacrifices they make for the church. It’s quite remarkable and gives the church great strength. On the other hand, countless individuals are being hurt, morally, spiritually, and intellectually, by some of the things that are going on to stifle their intellectual freedom.
What is your view of the received version of church history, Sterling?
I’ve felt for a long time that the church has made a very serious error in tying itself to all kinds of historical claims instead of focusing its claims on the quality of life it can engender, the happiness it can bring to people, and the spiritual and moral strength it can build in its members. It has always insisted that if X, Y, and Z historical events did not occur, then the church is not true. That’s a lot of nonsense. No church looks very good under a close inspection of its own history. The Catholics don’t, the Protestants don’t, and the Mormons don’t. There’s no need to pretend that our history is free of unsavory episodes—Joseph Smith’s involvement in magic and all that damned nonsense—to say nothing of polygamy. There’s no point in trying to cover them up. It makes more sense to focus the case for the church on something other than its historical origins. But it’s not an easy thing to do. We are so steeped in historical consciousness—often historical error.
For example, Joseph Smith’s first vision is highly questionable, in part because he told about it in very different terms as he grew older. It got increasingly miraculous in telling and retelling.
The Book of Mormon is entirely questionable too; there is no [p. 211] evidence that it is historically authentic. Yet the church has tied itself so completely to these claims. You can’t argue over someone else’s claim of a vision, but when you’ve got a book that you can pick up and carry around and read, then it is important to face the internal and external evidence for and against it. The people down at BYU who are spending their time trying to prove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon are just making fools of themselves. The church simply doesn’t need to live or die on such things. The church needs to live or die on the quality of the moral life it can produce in its people, and there it looks very, very good.
My observation is that most members aren’t concerned about the authenticity of our history. Their attachment to the church is to its moral life, to its community life. It’s baffling to find leaders panicky over a situation that most members are simply taking in stride.
I like that word “panicky.” It’s almost a frenzy with some. I could name general authorities who are as sensible and decent about these things as any human being could be, but the frenzied ones are very vocal and very powerful. Linda and Val Avery’s book on Emma Smith, for instance, is a brilliant biography and an honest attempt to correct some of the serious errors made by the church in reference to its own history. The kind of censorship they’ve met is not only disgusting; it’s disgraceful for a church to not have better judgment than that.
That, of course, is a view that’s not very popular downtown.
Probably not. That reminds me of an amusing story. You’d mentioned earlier that a number of journalists and authors have asked for my views on the Mormon religion. Two different writers looked me up because the church public relations staff had told them to avoid me, not to talk to me. Neither of the two had ever heard of me before; but after getting this advice, they thought they’d better get acquainted with me!
And did they learn what they needed?
Well, in one case, Desmond Clayton, a German television producer, was planning to do a documentary on the church to be shown in Germany and France. This was in 1975. He had received so little historical and doctrinal information from the church public relations people that he and I were both shocked. So I drove him over the route of the pioneers entering the valley and even gave him some technical advice. It was a magnificent day on Big Mountain, so I said, “Here’s the way to begin your film: some shots from the mountains here with the Tabernacle Choir singing ‘High on a Mountain Top’ in the background.” And that’s what he did! Before he brought his crew back to [p. 212] do the filming—he called me and said his superiors wanted him to do a program on me as well. He did, too: thirty minutes on the church and forty minutes on me!
Amusing. And how did it turn out?
I thought the one on me was very well done. I haven’t seen the one on the church. It was actually a moving picture film with the sound track on a separate film, in the German style. I thought the reason he wanted the interview with me was because I had been U.S. Commissioner of Education. It turned out that he was very surprised to discover that about me. It was all news to him. Anyway, we shot some of the film on the patio of our home, some at the university dealing with problems in education, and then another section on Temple Square dealing with the church. I made the church look as good as I could.
The only criticism I’ve ever heard of my book The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion is that I make the Mormon religion look better than it is. Sidney Angleman, a sophisticated Mormon-watcher and for years director of general education at the University of Utah, made that observation. I replied, “I’m aware of that. I attempted to make it look as good as I possibly could because the church’s leaders make it look so bad. The church doesn’t do justice to its own theology.”
What was the reaction within the church to this book?
I think the Mormon educators and most general authorities didn’t care much for it. I left out polygamy, Mormon polytheism, and the nonsense that human beings could become gods. I guess that’s why the church didn’t like my commentary.
In 1978, when you and Natalie were in Moscow, you received a telephone call from the head of the Moscow Bureau of Time magazine. The revelation on blacks and priesthood had just been announced?
Yes, the Time editor had told him to look me up and get a statement. When he came in to our hotel room, he put his finger to his lips and pointed to several places in the room, indicating that it was bugged; so we confined our conversation to the Mormon church. He showed me the telex with his instructions on it. They had described me as the leader of Mormon intellectual dissidents and listed a full page of questions which he was to ask me. I answered them all for him.
What’s your general impression of reporters and writers who want to do stories, either on the church or on your views?
Very mixed. Some had researched the subject extensively and were responsible people, so they produced very competent stuff; but others have just been looking for sensational elements. I’ve tried to call their [p. 213] attention to the more solid substance of Mormonism and the best features of the church—but such efforts usually don’t succeed. They know what they want.
Sterling, tell me what your reaction has been over the years as you’ve been described by some Mormon fanatics as an anti-Christ.
For so many years now I’ve found the whole thing so humorous that it doesn’t bother me in the least. I just have to laugh, because I’ve been described as a “son of perdition,” a “latter-day Korihor,” and the anti-Christ…
Which caused some pain for your children when they were growing up?
I don’t think they pay any attention to it now, but yes, when they were little kids, it was a problem. I don’t know whether parents actually told their children not to play with our children because I was an apostate, but they picked it up from somewhere. In two or three cases, some of our kids’ teachers caused some problems because of strong prejudices.
I am appalled when I see children take the rap for their parents’ beliefs or even behavior, although I know such prejudice springs from irrational fears of “contamination.” But to be criticized for an opinion you hold or a position you take yourself is just part of life. Having your integrity impugned or your ethics maligned, however, is a sting of a different type. How have you reacted to this sort of thing over the years?
I wasn’t ever happy about it, but at the same time I was able to live with it and so was Natalie. There was always gossip about things I reputedly said that weren’t true, but there was enough that was true to send me to hell in the eyes of the orthodox. I never suffered criticism for my behavior, however, just my beliefs. While I readily confess to being a heretic—one who doesn’t believe—I frankly resent being called an apostate one who turns against the church. I am critical of the church, but I’m for it, not against it.