Saints without Halos
Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton
Ephraim and Edna Ericksen: The Philosopher and the Trail Builder
[p.126]Ephraim Ericksen characterized his father, Bendt Jensen Ericksen as “one of thousands who made Brigham Young great.” Converted in Denmark in 1851, Bendt remained in his homeland as a missionary and Church leader for twelve years before emigrating to Utah. He was alone. His wife Hilda and their three children had died in an epidemic. When he arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, Brigham Young sent Bendt and his new wife, Anna Jurtsen, to colonize Milton, Idaho. Until their home was finished, they lived in a dugout, a cave in the bank of the Bear River—which no doubt contributed to Anna’s premature death. Later, Bendt and two new wives, Ellen Jonasson and Sophia Jensen, pioneered Bear River City northwest of Brigham City. While Bendt fulfilled two missions to Denmark and one to the Navajos, Ellen and Sophia raised children and eked out a meagre existence. Bendt married Anna Sophia Danielsen in 1878 and she persuaded him to move to Logan, where her second child, Ephraim, was born on 2 January 1882.
Not long after Ephraim’s birth, Bendt moved two of his [p.127]three wives and their seven children a few miles north to Preston, Idaho, where they all lived in a one-room cabin. Even by pioneer standards the Ericksens were poor. Bread and milk was the customary evening meal. Danes were on the bottom of the social ladder in the Mormon communities of southern Idaho, and despite Bendt’s record of Church service, he and his family were still “Danish”—a term of derision in some quarters.
Ephraim was twelve when his father died. To help support his mother, older sister, and younger brother, he worked on the family farm, on railroad construction, and on the Mink Creek canal. As a result, he was able to attend school only three or four months a year. At the age of twenty-one he graduated from the Oneida Stake Academy and, with his brother Alma, left Preston to attend the Brigham Young College in Logan, where their mother soon joined them.
Ephraim worked as a school janitor to pay his tuition. He had only one change of clothes, but his genial manner attracted many friends, and he was elected student body president. His pugilistic skills also won respect.
Ephraim’s most influential teachers at the BYC were Mosiah Hall, who had studied with John Dewey and led Ephraim into critical biblical scholarship, and William H. Chamberlin, who taught Ephraim the philosophy known as “personal idealism.” Chamberlin had a profound impact on the young farmboy. Personal idealism “impressed me as having great religious significance since it advocated the ultimate reality of human personality …. [It] struck me as just another way of saying, The soul of man is eternal,” Ephraim recalled. To him it was Mormon doctrine in philosophical garb, and when B. H. Roberts challenged the BYC students to answer the attacks of non-Mormon scholars, Ephraim decided he could best serve his Church and his people by becoming a philosopher.
While attending the BYC, Ephraim met and fell in love with Edna Clark, daughter of Hyrum D. and Ann Eliza Porter Clark. Edna’s background was quite different from Ephraim’s. The Clark and the Porter families both traced their Church [p.128]participation to Nauvoo and even earlier. Edna’s father and grandfather were successful ranchers and prominent churchmen in Star Valley, Wyoming, and Farmington, Utah. Attractive, and a talented singer, Edna enjoyed the attentions of numerous suitors.
Ephraim was poor, rather shabbily dressed, moved awkwardly on the dance floor, and “couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.” But Edna was impressed by the way he treated his mother, his personal integrity, and his idealism. She was sorry to see him leave in 1908 for the University of Chicago.
Traveling east by train, Ephraim and Alma stopped at Independence, Missouri, where they met Joseph Smith III. “He was then quiet and old—friendly, but not particularly impressive. But we had the satisfaction of having seen the son of the Prophet.” They also visited their uncle William G. Danielsen, a former Utah blacksmith who dreamed he had been called to start a plow factory in Jackson County preparatory to the return of the Saints. He persuaded President Joseph F. Smith to help finance the enterprise with Church funds and got into production. Poor management later led to financial difficulties, the Church eventually withdrew its support, and the project failed. “Uncle Bill’s dream apparently did not come from Heaven, but from his own head,” Ephraim concluded.
When Ephraim and Alma arrived in Chicago they had less than ten dollars between them. However, both were soon granted scholarships and began their studies—Alma in law, and Ephraim in philosophy.
The University of Chicago was a center of pragmatic philosophy, social and religious psychology, liberal theology, social gospel, and naturalistic religion. After his first year Ephraim decided that philosophy had not destroyed his basic religious convictions, but “I was ready to give up some of the traditional beliefs about miracles… and that there was only one true church …. but I continued to believe in the existence of God …. that He loved human beings everywhere and that the sincere efforts of persons and of organized groups to advance the truth, the beautiful, and the just, express God’s [p.129]will. This was Chamberlin’s philosophy, and to me it was Mormonism at its best.”
But to Horace H. Cummings, superintendent of the Church school system, it was not Mormonism of any kind. He informed Ephraim that the philosophy he was being taught was not the kind that was wanted by the Church. Because Ephraim hoped to return to Utah and teach in the Church schools, he took the superintendent’s advice and transferred into economics—still “holding fast to my philosophy,” for “it appeared to me… that a man of Mr. Cummings’s type may not continue as head of the system, and that the attitude of the Church toward science and philosophy may change.”
In 1910 Ephraim returned to Utah and married Edna Clark in the Salt Lake Temple. In the summer they began gathering material for what was to become Ephraim’s dissertation on Mormon history. University of Utah President John A. Widtsoe and Elder Joseph Fielding Smith, the Church Historian, gave encouragement and help in locating documents and eyewitnesses of historical events.
The next year Ephraim was named principal of the Church’s Murdock Academy in Beaver, Utah. When he and Edna arrived, they found the academy housed in abandoned Fort Cameron, a short distance from town.
Boxes of books and clothing stood unopened on the Ericksens’ living room floor on the morning the census examiner appeared at the door. Emphasizing the need for accuracy, he thoroughly questioned Edna about her husband’s vital statistics. Then he took out another questionnaire and asked her name and occupation. Proudly she answered, “I am a homemaker and a mother.” “Nothing,” he wrote. Edna immediately became a “feminist.”
At Murdock, Ephraim was principal, teacher, fund-raiser, branch counselor, and athletic coach; Edna was counselor in the branch Relief Society, assistant dean of students, substitute mother, nursemaid, midwife, and the lead in several school operettas.
Ephraim was a popular but outspoken principal. On three occasions he was reprimanded by stake and General Authorities [p.130]for “attempting to make the school more important than the whole Church.” At one stake conference, he preached on “the eternal glory of education” and “the sacred mission of the Murdock Academy.” He urged the boys to finish high school so they could proselytize effectively anywhere—even on university campuses. When he finished, Elder Joseph W. McMurrin of the First Council of Seventy arose and cautioned that what was needed was a strong testimony, not secular knowledge. Undaunted, the self-appointed apostle of education continued to proclaim his gospel throughout the region. “I know the Gospel is true,” he said, “insofar as it is interpreted correctly.” The “correct” interpretation was “faith, charity, and education. These three, and greatest of these is education.”
In the spring of 1914 Ephraim took a short leave of absence to complete his Ph.D. course work at Chicago, returning in time for his annual student recruitment drive throughout the southwest quadrant of the state. In the spring of 1915 he accepted a position at the University of Utah—assistant professor of philosophy at $1,700 a year.
In 1918 Ephraim finished his dissertation, a critical study of Mormon group life. Though it was highly praised in the London Times and various periodicals, The Psychological and Ethical Aspects of Mormon Group Life was not well received in Utah. Ephraim was told that Dr. Widtsoe found it “historically and scientifically unsound” and that it had been on sale for only a few hours at the Deseret Bookstore before it was quickly boxed up and returned to the publisher.
Ephraim’s interpretation of Mormon history was not what Latter-day Saints were accustomed to. He suggested that Joseph Smith “received his inspiration from the group and in turn reflected its life in such a way as to give it restimulation.” He praised Joseph Smith’s sensitivity to the spiritual needs of his people and Brigham Young’s pragmatic genius in overcoming the challenges of the Great Basin and founding a state. But he was critical of the Church’s hostility towards the biological sciences and biblical scholarship, and its close alignment with capitalism. “There is a growing tendency to take sides with the capitalistic class and with large corporations [p.131]against the laboring classes,” he charged. “The philosophy of the church leaders was at one time radical and socialistic; it is now conservative and capitalistic …. The United Order is as far from their minds as is socialism from the minds of the owners of large corporations.”
“What Mormonism needs today,” he wrote, “is the vitalization of its institutions, which need to be put into use rather than merely contemplated. … When Mormonism finds more glory in working out new social ideals than in the contemplating of past achievements or the beauty of its own theological system, it will begin to feel its old-time strength.”
Despite this strident critique, the Church soon gave Ephraim an opportunity to help “vitalize its institutions” and “work out new social programs.” In 1922, the same year his dissertation was published, he was called to the general board of the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association.
Edna had received a similar calling two years before—into the Primary General Board. A much lower percentage of boys than girls was attending Primary, and the general board decided that a special committee should be assigned to the problem. When the names of the committee members were read to the board, Edna’s name was not on the list. She was disappointed; after all, she was the only board member with three Primary-age boys. Then Primary President Louie B. Felt asked Edna to see her in her office. Edna called home to have the boys put the potatoes in the oven and start dinner without her.
Sister Felt called Edna to chair the new committee. Edna was not prepared for that much responsibility. She was especially conscious of the fact that she had never graduated from high school. But Sister Felt was certain. “She put her hands on my head,” Edna recalled, “and gave me a blessing. It was quite unusual. She recognized in her prayer that it was a tremendous responsibility and promised if I would be faithful and diligent, the way would be opened.” Sister Felt emphasized that Edna’s husband and children would be her best resource.
When Edna arrived home, the family was eating dinner. She began to tell them what had happened, but overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy, she broke down and cried. “If I just [p.132]knew how to do it,” she sobbed, “but I don’t.” She would have to drop her kindergarten training class at the university, she told them, and start reading—preparing somehow.
Then in prompt fulfillment of Sister Felt’s blessing, Ephraim spoke up. “Edna, you will never find a better textbook than the one you have around this table.” He and the boys “pledged their support to me right there. I told them I couldn’t carry the whole load alone. Their support was beautiful.” Ephraim devoted every Saturday afternoon to helping Edna organize and think through the problems of creating a new Church program for boys.
Some of Edna’s committee felt they could get the boys to their meetings more regularly by emphasizing that attendance was a commandment. “But Ephraim and I had the feeling that we should start where the child was, and build from there. We had to know who the children were and what interested them first. … So we instructed the ward primaries to get acquainted with the boys and find out what they enjoyed, where their interests were.”
The Church’s Boy Scout leader Oscar A. Kirkham suggested the name “Trail Builder” and Edna’s committee developed the program. At first it was just the Trekkers and Guides (ages 9 and 10). Two years later the Blazers were added. The committee searched for a way of recognizing achievement and Edna suggested the bandalo with felt badges. Thus, the Trail Builder program began—a program that endured without major revision for fifty years and was used as a model in developing the Cub Scouts of America.
Edna continued to chair the committee overseeing Trail Builder work until her release in 1940. During her twenty years on the Primary board, she also wrote many articles for the Children’s Friend, and in addition to her Church assignments she sang in the Tabernacle Choir and appeared as guest soloist in the old Salt Lake Theatre, on KSL radio, and with the Grieg Male Chorus.
Ephraim was just as diligent in his Church calling. Soon after his appointment to the YMMIA board, he was appointed chairman of the new Young Men’s and Young Women’s [p.133]recreation committee. The committee previewed motion pictures for Church events, and published “Standards for Social Dancing.” (“Jazz in orchestra dance playing might be defined as ‘departure from the correct,’ making the instruments perform that which is not written, and in a way contrary to their accepted, proper use. This type of playing is rank, ‘faking,’ and should not be tolerated by intelligent people.”)
But a more enduring contribution was the establishment of cultural and recreational MIA festivals. By 1926 virtually every stake and ward sponsored festivals in dozens of categories, including poetry and essay writing, vocal quartets and choruses, orchestra, band, drama, ballroom dancing, folk dancing, instrumental and vocal solos, fife and drum, debate, retold story, declamation, field and track, “van ball,” and basketball. Winners on regional levels came to Salt Lake City to participate in Churchwide competitions.
In 1931 Ephraim was released as chairman of the recreation committee to develop an MIA program for young adults twenty-four to thirty-five. With Elsie Talmage Brandley, Ephraim wrote the first manual, Challenging Problems of the Twentieth Century. Published in the midst of the Depression, the topics were relevant and controversial: “The Economic Challenge,” “Challenges to the Family,” “Recreation and the New Challenge to Leadership,” “Religion: Its Intellectual and Social Changes.”
Harking back to themes he had emphasized in Mormon Group Life, Ephraim portrayed science and philosophy as “loyal friends” of religion. Frequent positive allusions to articles by non-Mormon social scientists encouraged MIA members to look beyond Mormonism, as well as within, for social direction.
Study questions at the end of each chapter were not designed for easy answers: “What are some of the new intellectual achievements that impose a reconstruction on traditional religious thought? Does religion have the responsibility to settle questions of scientific and intellectual character? What is more nearly the function of religion (a) to conserve inherited beliefs, (b) to promote new and more [p.134]adequate scientific ideas, (c) to employ new scientific and philosophical ideas in the interest of finer faith and more abundant living?”
The experimental year was a popular success, and the manual was expanded for the following year to include trends in education, unemployment, community health, family life, leisure time, isolationism in foreign policy, social justice, and capitalism. Another manual, “Social Changes and Spiritual Values,” was authorized for 1933. A study indicated that attendance in the new department had risen dramatically, with only three of twenty-nine participating stakes reporting negative reactions.
But in April 1933 Elder John A. Widtsoe, just back from presiding over the European missions, spoke to the board. According to the minutes of the meeting he “commented on the abundance of material contained in many of the manuals and said that much of it was beyond his comprehension. … He further stated that unless we flavor all we do and all we have with the message of the Prophet Joseph Smith, we are far afield, adding, ‘If this organization intends to give extension courses like the University of Utah, we are missing our purpose.'”
YMMIA Superintendent George Albert Smith immediately appointed a committee to reexamine the goals of MIA. Under Elder Widtsoe’s direction the committee recommended the new theme of MIA be “to help make real Latter-day Saints,” and that an editorial committee be appointed to edit and correlate all manuscripts for study courses, programs, and activity outlines. Ephraim and one other board member voiced strenuous objections but they were overruled and, with a few other “progressives,” released.
In the meantime, Edna had become active in various civic organizations—in addition to raising four sons and a daughter, and developing the Trail Builder program. In 1932 she became chairman of the American Home Division of the State Federation of Women’s Clubs and state chairman of the Better Homes Organization. She also led the singing at Democratic conventions and rallies. One day in 1933 a party organizer [p.135]came to ask Ephraim if he would consider running for the Utah House of Representatives. He had been an outspoken proponent of the labor movement and was considered a good prospect for political office. But Edna knew he was too preoccupied with the MIA manuals and his responsibilities as dean at the university to run. Half-jokingly she suggested some day she might run. The organizer took her seriously. Ephraim seconded the idea, and within a few weeks Edna was sitting at desk 42 in Utah’s House of Representatives.
In the House she worked for equal pay for women, the rights of midwives, and other health and educational causes. She served in the House until 1935, and in the State Senate from 1941 to 1947. Among her achievements in the Senate was the appointment of Maude May Babcock as senate chaplain, the first woman chaplain of a state legislature in the United States. Edna also chaired the committee that commissioned the Brigham Young statue for the United States Capitol Building. She presided at the Washington unveiling in 1950, thus becoming, Ephraim joked, “the only woman to put Brigham in his place.”
After his release from the YMMIA board, Ephraim taught the high priests group in the University Ward, served as president of the Western Division of the American Philosophical Association, and completed his book Social Ethics (Doubleday, 1937). In 1949, after thirty-four years, he retired from the University of Utah—only to teach at the University of Nevada from 1949 to 1952. While in Reno, Edna helped promote the first chapter of the League of Women Voters in Nevada.
Returning to Salt Lake City, Ephraim and Edna remained involved in the University Ward. Though his individual views precluded Ephraim from official callings, he attended priesthood meetings “and with proper humiliation and faith give the brethren a bit of true Christian philosophy. In the same spirit they listen attentively, yet prefer to ‘remain on the Lord’s side.'” The ward teachers visited monthly “and in the kindest spirit of the gospel provide me with insight into the deepest theology of Mormonism. To all of this I listen and return to [p.136][them] measure for measure my own FOOLosophy.”
Though he goodnaturedly joked about his relationship with the Church, Ephraim remained devoted to its welfare. His critique remained essentially the same as his 1918 dissertation. In 1957 he wrote, “The Mormon community has priests by the hundreds of thousands, but few prophets; and with few exceptions their prophets have been more priestly in their philosophy than prophetic.”
Yet he remained optimistic. “The Priest and the Prophet will always be with us, the one to advance the Promising New and the other to defend the Hallowed Old. … Creative thought in Mormonism is not going to be depressed.”
After a fall that confined him to a wheelchair, Edna cared for Ephraim for the last fifteen years of his life. When he passed away in 1967, she resumed her civic career, serving as receptionist for the State House and Senate, on the state Textbook and Curriculum Commission, and as a charter member of the Foster Grandparent Association.
In 1965 the University of Utah established the E. E. Ericksen Chair of Philosophy. In the contributions of his many students, friends, and associates, Ephraim’s legacy continues to vibrate within the Church.