Saints without Halos
Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton
T. Edgar Lyon: Missionary, Educator, Historian
[p.144]T. Edgar Lyon was born in Salt Lake City in 1903, the eighth child of David and Mary Cairns Lyon. When he was eight or nine, Ed began to work after school in his father’s print shop and, when he was twelve, began spending the summers with his older brother Paul at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, haying, grubbing out sagebrush, pulling down timbers and stripping the logs, and helping build Paul’s log cabin.
Graduating from the Latter-day Saint High School, Ed studied for two years at the University of Utah before he was called on a mission to Holland. He was somewhat apprehensive about the mission because he had not done particularly well in Latin at high school and feared the Dutch language might prevent him from being an effective missionary. However, when Melvin J. Ballard set him apart, he blessed him with the gift of tongues and the gift of healing.
Following the blessing, Ed departed without language training or other missionary preparation. After a harrowing ocean voyage through iceberg fields, the group arrived at Liverpool, where they boarded a train for Harwich. But heavy rains had washed out the bridges and delayed their arrival. The train finally pulled up right along the quay just as the boat was [p.145]leaving for Rotterdam. It was brought back and the missionaries jumped aboard, only to learn that their berths had been given to others. They spent a sleepless night on the floor of a dining hall. When they finally arrived at Rotterdam, Ed and his companions were “dead tired, hardly able to keep our eyes open,” but they were immediately whisked away to church and invited to sit on the stand.
Naturally Ed could not understand the opening song or prayer. When the first speaker began to talk, Ed noticed both of his companions were fast asleep, but “I was wide awake, sitting on the end of my bench, and I was understanding everything the man said.” He talked about the ancient Christian church, the apostasy and restoration. Ed was amazed. Though he knew no Dutch, he “got pretty well the whole gist of the thing.”
A second speaker addressed the congregation and Ed understood his talk as well. But of the third talk “I never got a word out of it except the ‘Jesus Christus, Amen’ at the end.” To him it was fulfillment of Elder Ballard’s blessing. He was convinced that nothing but a spiritual gift could have given him the understanding of those talks.
He began studying the Dutch Book of Mormon, learning the words as he went along. One day, before he knew much of the language, he was tracting an old section of town. It was not unusual in his mission for companions to split up and work different sides of the street, and Ed was alone. He met a Dutchman “about six foot six inches I guess, with broad shoulders. … He was raking the leaves up and had a little fire burning.” The man refused Ed’s tract. Ed persisted. Again the man refused, then took the pamphlet and threw it into the fire. “I walked away and something turned me around and I went back and I said, ‘Mijn Heer, will you please read this tract?’ and I handed it to him. He put it between his fingers, leaned on the end of the rake … and I was talking and he was listening.” Then Ed realized the man knew no English, but he understood what Ed was saying. Ed was speaking Dutch!
His companion could not believe it when Ed told him what had happened. So a few days later they returned to the house. The man wouldn’t invite them in but said he had read the [p.146]pamphlet. “There were some good things in it,” he said, and other things he couldn’t accept. Then Ed’s companion said, “Well, now, we’re missionaries from America.”
“I know that. He told me that last week, and you’re over here at your own support. You’re not taking up collections; you’re not selling these tracts.”
“No, we’re coming to preach the restoration of the gospel,” the missionary continued.
“Yes, he told me that. He told me about Joseph Smith, the prophet who he said restored the gospel to the earth and organized the church on the earth today,” said the Dutchman. Then the missionary proceeded to discuss the first principles of the gospel. “Yes,” said the man, “he told me about that.”
“He can’t,” protested the missionary. “He doesn’t speak Dutch. He’s only been here for a few weeks.”
“Whether he speaks Dutch or not I don’t know,” countered the Dutchman, “but he talked good Dutch to me and he didn’t speak with an American accent like you do.”
“It came just like that,” Ed recalled, “and left me just like this understanding did this first day. But to me it gave me the feeling, I can learn it. I’m going to try.”
After he learned the language, Ed was assigned to be the companion of a new missionary who, when he got off the train, immediately declared that he didn’t believe the gospel, that he was on a mission just to satisfy his family and that he wouldn’t “get involved in these emotional things” such as testimony-bearing.
It so happened that they had a dinner engagement at the home of a member that night. When they arrived Ed and his new companion learned that little Marietje had fallen against a sharp brick wall and had been paralyzed from the waist down. An operation was to be performed the next day. The girl’s mother asked Ed to administer to her daughter. The father held only the Aaronic Priesthood. She handed Ed a bottle of consecrated oil. He handed the bottle to his companion, who said, “I told you I wasn’t going to do anything like this.”
“That isn’t the point,” Ed answered. “They think you’re a missionary, and you should do it.”
[p.147]”Well, I can’t speak Dutch anyway.”
“We assume God understands English … You go ahead.”
He did, and Ed sealed the anointing. “I don’t know why I said it, but I said that she would be healed without an operation. When I got through and said Amen, she hopped off that couch and ran into the hall and down in the back. That’s the first step she’d taken since Sunday evening.”
To Ed and the family it was a manifestation of the power of the priesthood. Even the reluctant missionary “gained a little bit of an insight that there was more to this than just nonsense.”
Following his mission, Ed toured the Holy Land and then resumed his studies at the University of Utah. One day his father, who was a bishop and secretary of the George F. Richards prayer circle, notified Ed that he had been invited to join the prayer circle. The following week Ed and his father went to the temple. At the gatehouse they picked up bottles of oil to be blessed in the temple and later returned them to the gatehouse where they were sold.
Inside the temple they climbed the stairs to a large upper room containing wooden lockers with large drawers for the temple clothes of prayer circle members. They did not take off their street clothing, but put on their robes and entered the council room on the west where the Council of the Twelve held their weekly meetings. Ed was impressed with “those big black soft upholstered chairs. I had never sat in such a comfortable chair in my life. The first one was George F. Richards’s. If he was not there then my father, as secretary, was second and presided. George F. Richards would be in the head chair and if he were absent it was always vacant.”
Following any announcements that Elder Richards might have, the group of eighteen to twenty men surrounded an altar “where the list of the ill that we had brought from the gatehouse … would be placed on the altar” and prayers were offered on their behalf.
On their way to and from the council room each Thursday evening, Ed noticed, in an adjoining room, the sacrament table and service used earlier in the day by the Twelve. Occasionally [p.148]there were also several large victorian wash basins with tall, plain pitchers, and drying racks with quite a number of white towels on them. The pitchers and towels, he surmised, were used by the Twelve in the ordinance of washing the feet.
When Elder Richards returned from an assignment, he frequently told the circle about his trip. Members “really tried to make you feel welcome; they felt a real brotherhood there,” a brotherhood that extended beyond the walls of the temple. For Ed, the prayer circle produced a “very, very good feeling. A strong feeling. I had just come from the mission and this was really a continuation of a fine spiritual experience.”
In August 1927 Ed married Hermana Forsberg. They were to have six sons, including two sets of twins. Ed graduated from the University of Utah in education, majoring in history with a minor in philosophy. His first job was teaching history and civics at the Rigby (Idaho) High School. At one stake conference Elder Melvin J. Ballard was the visiting General Authority. When Ed was called to speak, he mentioned that when Elder Ballard had set him apart for his mission, he had promised him the gift of tongues and the gift of healing. Then Ed related his mission experiences, and Elder Ballard responded, “You know, of the hundreds and hundreds of missionaries I’ve set apart, I have never given anyone else a promise like that. I worried from that day to this because I didn’t remember who it was I said it to, but I remember I told somebody that. I often wondered, was he disappointed if it didn’t happen?”
The next year Ed was called to teach seminary in Midway, Utah. With many other seminary teachers, he attended the 1929 Old Testament seminar at Brigham Young University given by Sidney B. Sperry, who had just returned from studying the Bible at the University of Chicago. The following year Ed and his colleagues at the seminar were taught by the eminent Biblical scholar Edgar J. Goodspeed.
Ed found Goodspeed to be a brilliant scholar. He opened up new vistas for his Latter-day Saint students. “With Goodspeed you had higher criticism,” Ed discovered, “but you had it with a man who had a spiritual outlook, a spiritual background.”
[p.149]When the Church Department of Education agreed to help defray some of the expenses for a few seminary and institute teachers to study at Chicago, Ed seized the opportunity. He and Hermana saved what they could and, in 1931, entered Chicago’s program in Christian history under the specialist of American religions, William W. Sweet. Among his colleagues who later became important members of the Church education system, were Russel Swensen, Daryl Chase, George Tanner, and George S. Romney.
The classes were very small, and every quarter the professors invited their students to their homes for a social. One night at Goodspeed’s home Ed surveyed the professor’s library. “Between the book ends there was a King James Bible, the Wescott and Hortt’s Greek text of the Bible … then there was his New Testament and then next to it the Triple Combination. They were all between book ends on this table there in his drawing room. I was amazed to see that. Somebody said, ‘What’s this Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, Pearl of Great Price?'”
“That’s a volume of scripture,” Goodspeed answered.
Ed wrote his thesis on Orson Pratt, received a master’s degree, and began work on a Ph.D. before returning to teach seminary for a year at Rigby. Next came a summer of study at the University of California, Berkeley, and then back to Rigby. The Lyons hadn’t even unpacked before word arrived that President Heber J. Grant would be attending stake conference and wanted to talk to Ed.
President Grant called Ed, barely thirty, to serve as president of the Netherlands Mission. “If he had said, ‘We’re going to send you to Timbuktu,’ I’d have been no more suprised,” he recalled.
One of President Grant’s granddaughters, a lifelong friend of Hermana, gave a farewell party for the Lyons. During refreshments, President Grant turned to Ed and asked, “By the way, Brother Lyon, how old are you?” When informed he was thirty, President Grant said, “Oh, that’s good. I’m glad to hear it. I’ve been criticized for calling you on a mission when you’re so young and inexperienced. I’ll tell the Twelve when we meet [p.150]on Thursday that they don’t have any reason to criticize me at all. I was a stake president when I was twenty-four and an apostle when I was twenty-six. You’re a mission president at thirty. That’s getting along in years.”
Ed’s four years as mission president (1933-1937) were during the Great Depression, when there were only forty to fifty missionaries in Holland. One of his most important responsibilities was training local leadership to assume duties previously handled by the missionaries. Elder John A. Widtsoe had developed a specific program for this purpose, and the effort was continued when Elder Joseph F. Merrill replaced him as head of the European Mission. Ed wholeheartedly endorsed the program, and gradually transferred Amsterdam, Rotterdam, the Hague, Leyden, Dordrecht, Groningen, Arnheim, Schiedem, Delft, Utrecht, and Den Helder to local leadership.
In 1936 the mission celebrated the seventy-fifth anniversary of the introduction of the gospel to the Netherlands. After some difficulty, Ed located the pond where the first baptisms had been performed, had a monument erected, and supervised a centennial pageant in Rotterdam.
When Ed and Hermana attended a mission presidents’ conference in Berlin, they got off the streetcar at the wrong stop and, as a result, walked by the chancellory just as the new ambassador from Argentina arrived to meet Adolph Hitler. “He came out on the balcony and stood up there and had all of his elite guard down there goose-stepping, and the clatter of their hobnails on those paving stones was a din.” Ed and Hermana managed to work their way up to the fence. When the ambassador got out of his car, “Hitler came out of the door dressed in a pair of striped trousers and a cutaway coat. I never before realized how small he was. He was smaller than all the men around him.” The ambassador and the Fuhrer shook hands and walked into the chancellory together as the people yelled and screamed, “Heil Hitler!”
Though he met many Latter-day Saints who opposed the Nazi movement, Ed was distressed to find that some of the Saints were active members of the Nazi Party. Even though the [p.151]Nazis confiscated several Mormon tracts, a few branch presidents were members of the secret police. Ed was astonished to find a large portrait of Hitler hanging on the wall of the main branch in Berlin opposite a portrait of Joseph Smith. In the evening meeting, one of the brethren preached a sermon on the two great prophets, Joseph Smith, the prophet of the nineteenth century, and Adolf Hitler, the prophet of the twentieth. Ed was disturbed to think any Latter-day Saints could support Adolf Hitler. He realized that fanatical devotion to any political cause could be dangerous.
The Lyons hoped to teach seminary in Ogden when they returned to Utah, but instead, Ed was assigned to be the only teacher at the relatively new Institute of Religion adjacent to the University of Utah. The first year, about seventy students attended his classes at the University Ward. But by the end of World War II the meetinghouse rooms were too small for the numbers attending.
Property was purchased on the corner of University Street and Third South and construction of a new building authorized. “I’ve never seen a bunch of kids so excited as they were over that new building,” Ed recalled. “They held bazaars, they had carnivals, and they raised better than five thousand dollars to buy equipment for the building.” Much of the work was done by the students, with Ed and his friend and colleague Lowell Bennion working side by side with them. When the Institute’s doors finally opened, the two teachers had 1,200 students and nine chapters of Lambda Delta Sigma.
For more than thirty years T. Edgar Lyon was a permanent fixture at the Institute. He taught classes in the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, Church history, and other subjects. He participated in devotionals and social activities, and counseled students when they came to him with questions and problems.
Ed might have been satisfied with his reputation as a teacher who established a wonderful rapport with his students. But he was determined to obtain his doctorate. He had selected a dissertation topic, “Evangelical Protestant Missionary Activities in Mormon Dominated Areas,” and started research [p.152]in 1931, but, interrupted by his presidency of the Dutch mission and two summers of study at Chicago, progress was slow. He transferred to the University of Utah, completed courses in history and philosophy, and finished his dissertation. Finally, in 1962, more than thirty years after he received a master’s, T. Edgar Lyon was awarded his doctorate.
Widely respected as a Church history scholar, Ed was also a popular speaker at sacrament meetings, firesides, and study groups. He was called upon to write lesson manuals and textbooks for the Church. He wrote articles for newspapers, Church magazines, and professional historical journals.
In the early 1950s Ed met at the Institute, and later at the Union Building, with an informal group of university professors playfully nicknamed “the swearing elders.” They invited various speakers to discuss the Church and the gospel. “It was an intellectual group,” Ed recalled. “They were just trying to get down and explore some things in Mormonism that had been accepted as basic.” Among the members were George Boyd, Obert C. Tanner, Waldemar Read, E. E. Ericksen, Sterling M. McMurrin, Jack Adamson, Boyer Jarvis, and William Mulder. Among the speakers were Hugh Nibley, Adam S. Bennion, Antoine R. Ivins, and Levi Edgar Young. Their gatherings reminded Ed of the nineteenth century “when intellectual groups got together and discussed topics, wrote papers, which were then subjected to criticism and evaluation of the members.”
Ed’s influence was not limited to Mormons. He participated in several interfaith discussions, and delivered a series of lectures on Mormonism at the Presbyterian church, another series with the Reverend Bill Bremley before the Salt Lake Council of Churches, and yet another series at Westminster College.
During the last years of his life, at an age when most people taper off in their activity, Ed Lyon continued to teach and to serve as the historian of Nauvoo Restoration, Inc. He was anxious to see that the restoration of Mormon Nauvoo be done responsibly and professionally, and not be allowed to become a mere public relations gimmick. An authentic recreation of [p.153]Mormon Nauvoo, he believed, would win respect and friends for the Church.
Ed was a charter member of the Mormon History Association and participated in many of its meetings. When the association met at Independence, Missouri, Ed was scheduled to give a paper on the significance of the crossing of the Missouri River, to be delivered on the river bank. Although the wind was blowing and rain began to fall, Ed stood there, bareheaded, and described the early days on the Missouri River. At another MHA meeting he delivered a personal reminiscence entitled “Church Historians I Have Known.” Enjoying the friendship and respect of his fellow historians, Dr. T. Edgar Lyon was named president of the Mormon History Association in 1967.
As the leading authority on Nauvoo, he was invited to prepare a volume on the Nauvoo period of Church history for a proposed sesquicentennial series and had compiled impressive files and first drafts of some chapters by the time of his death in 1978.
In all activities, Hermana supported and encouraged him. Both devoted years of time and energy to their family; and when the children grew up and left home, Ed and Hermana continued a close relationship. Recalling how he had fallen in love with her soon after his return from his first mission, Ed said, “I’m still in love with her and I’m still discovering things I never knew possible to be there after all these years, but they’re there.”
The Church has produced many remarkable individuals who have devoted years of their lives to the seminary and institute program—Franklin L. West, Lowell L. Bennion, Wiley Sessions, George S. Tanner, George Boyd, Ed Berrett, and many others—but no one who knew him would deny that T. Edgar Lyon’s energy and devotion as well as his breadth and versatility were unexcelled. His was a unique contribution to the improvement of Latter-day Saint education.