Leaving the Fold
James W. Ure, editor
Stewart L. Udall
Rule will show the man.
—The Seven Sages
[p.65]Shortly after being elected to his fourth term as an Arizona congressman, Stewart L. Udall was appointed by President John F. Kennedy as the nation’s 37th Secretary of the Interior—a position he held for eight years under both presidents Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. It was under Stewart that the seeds for the ecological revolution in America began to flower. It was Stewart who arranged for Robert Frost to read poetry at the inauguration of President Kennedy. It was Stewart who, as Secretary of the Interior, brought live theater back to Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., after more than a century.
Stewart has authored a number of books, including the best-selling The Quiet Crisis (1963), in which he advanced the “proposition that men must grasp completely the relationship between human stewardship and the fullness of the American earth.” An updated version, The Quiet Crisis and the Next Generation, was published in 1988. His other books include 1976: Agenda for Tomorrow and Myths of August: A Personal Exploration of Our Tragic Cold War Affair with the Atom. He co-authored The Energy Balloon. A 1987 work, To the Inland Empire: Coronado and Our Spanish Legacy, celebrated Hispanic contributions to American history (reissued by the Museum of New [p.66]Mexico Press as Majestic Journey). King Juan Carlos of Spain conferred knighthood on Stewart to show his country’s appreciation for the book.
At the time of this interview, Stewart was living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, not far from St. Johns, Arizona, where he was born. In Santa Fe, he does legal work helping uranium miners and widows to qualify under the federal Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. He is also at work on his latest book, Western Settlers/Western Myths: Reflections on the Warping of Western History.
When I spoke with Stewart by telephone, snow had fallen in Salt Lake City. “We just got your storm,” he said, after picking up the receiver. We’d corresponded before talking; he’d sent me a file of yellowed newspaper clippings and articles on him and his family. It contained everything from stories about his high school basketball successes to clippings from the Congressional Record. The file also contained a letter written by LDS church President Heber J. Grant. It was dated June 24, 1929, and in it Grant explained why he strongly opposed naming a new bridge over the Colorado River at Marble Canyon the “Lee’s Ferry Bridge.”
The descendants of John D. Lee can’t be any more anxious than I am to have no reference made to the Mountain Meadows massacre. I can assure you that no one of the General Authorities has any desire to do anything or say anything to wound the feelings of the descendants of John D. Lee. We know that some of our choicest and best citizens are members of the Church as his descendants. I believe that you do our people a great injustice when you say that “church members seem to take great pleasure in bringing it up and telling about it in gossip.”
I remember distinctly the interview with your father and others to which you refer in your letter, and I have never changed my position from that day to this. I am in favor of allowing the entire matter to die, and in no way could it be resurrected any better in my judgment, my dear sister, than to have the bridge over the great gorge at Marble Canyon named Lee’s Ferry Bridge …
[p.67]I honestly believe that in the years to come all the descendants of John D. Lee will thank me for the part which I took in seeking to have the bridge not named Lee’s Ferry Bridge.
In our interview Stewart speaks about his mother and about the massacre, and his part in bringing about what he hopes will be a symbolic healing of the pain inflicted on his family by an historic event. We arranged a date and an hour when I could reach him at his home. He measures each word carefully.
What year were you born?
In 1920, so I’m getting in the “old timer” category. I was born in St. Johns, Arizona, a Mormon settlement. My grandfather was one of the founders, and the first bishop, and the first stake president. And my father was born there; so that gives you some roots.
You have some illustrious names in your Mormon background, names that would be familiar to all Mormons, I think.
Well, the names that are most famous, or infamous [he laughs] in one case, John D. Lee of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Another is Jacob Hamblin. Another of my great-grandparents was Levi Stewart; he was a prominent merchant in Salt Lake, close to Brigham Young, and was sent down to be the first bishop of Kanab, Utah. Almost all of my great-grandparents were sent south by Brigham Young. Juanita Brooks once wrote something where she said that “it was a kind of a Siberia.” You know, we were sending them off to the far end and they would never have a chance to enjoy the cultural advantages in Salt Lake City. So they were all dutiful and accepted it. But all of them—all of mine were sent south.
It sounds like your ancestors were very active in the Mormon church.
That’s correct. To add, my other great-grandparent, a Udall, was a little Englishman who came across in 1851 and went down to Nephi and lived there all of his life. That’s south of Salt Lake, but it isn’t that far south. My grandfather, whom I knew as a boy knows a grandfa-[p.68]ther, was the first the bishop of St. Johns, and then when that was made a stake in 1887 he became the stake president. You know, in those days there were probably only thirty-five or forty who held that rank. He served until 1922, when he was succeeded by my father who was stake president until he was elected to the Supreme Court of Arizona in 1946. So they had that long stretch, and I grew up in a religious family, a strong family. My mother was a granddaughter of John D. Lee, but that’s another story.
Were you active as most children of active Mormon parents were?
I was the oldest son and my father was the religious leader and I was very dutiful as a young man. I participated in church activities and then I went on a mission. I was the only one in the family who went on a mission, by the way.
Where did you go?
To the eastern states.
So you were active up at least through your twenties. Did you enjoy church activities? Or was it more out of a sense of duty?
No, it was not all dutiful. There was conveyed by my parents a strong allegiance to the church. I was interested in the beginning in church history; I absorbed a lot of that. That still is a fascination of mine today and that’s my current book … a part of it grows out of that. I participated in the church activities for young people, and I look back on my missionary experience as fruitful experience. I got a lot out of it, and I came away with warm feelings toward the church. I got all of my education at state schools. I was at the University of Arizona before the war, and then I went on my mission in 1940 to 1942; the war started in the latter part. I came back and went into the service for three years, and then I went to the University of Arizona law school.
You were in the service during World War II?
I was in the Army Air Force. I flew on bombers out of Italy; I was an enlisted man, a gunner. I was in B-24’s, long-distance bombers.
Did you fly to that godawful Ploesti?
[p.69]That must have been a terrifying experience. Did the war strengthen your faith?
I don’t think it changed it much. Because of my missionary experiences, and a young Pennsylvania-Dutch minister whom I met while I was on my mission, I was moving in the direction of being a pacifist and a conscientious objector. I was toying with this while I was on my mission. I didn’t say much to anybody about it. But then, of course, with Pearl Harbor that was the kind of event that sharpens decisions and makes you decide what you really believe. While I was in the service, I did a lot of reading and spent a lot of my time—you know, army time is 90 percent wasted waiting—and I spent most of my time in libraries. I’d done some of that on my mission; I began being a very wide reader in terms of religion and literature and history and so on.
Shortly after the war, you married. Were you still active at that point in your life?
My wife is LDS from the same kind of background—old, cohesive families. It turns out we had pretty much the same experience and attitudes with the church. We ended up having six children; four of them in the mid-1950s when I was in Washington as a congressman. But neither of us was ever devoted church-goers; we maintained our ties but didn’t participate very much.
So by the time you were back from the war, you weren’t a regular attendee at church. Is that fair to say?
Yes and no. Two of the influences in my life were at the church institute at the University of Arizona. Before the war, one was Lowell Bennion. A lovely man. I participated a great deal at the institute. I didn’t at home. But, of course, an institute environment is different. After the war, it was Sterling McMurrin, and we became dear friends for life. Both of them had an influence on my thinking, I think Sterling more than Lowell. But after the war, I participated in the institute activities. Of course, after I left school, I didn’t.
What did your parents feel about your inactivity? Was there any pressure from them; did they say anything?
Oh, sure. My father, being a judge, was very fair-minded, very judicial. He was also a church leader. He made it clear to us he was pained at why we weren’t being more active; and one of the reasons we main-[p.70]tained ties and did church things was what we used to call “parent pleasing.” But there was more than that, I guess, in my case. My mother—I guess because she had the Mountain Meadow massacre hanging over her—was more liberal and tolerant. But the church was very important to them, and it was important to have as many children as possible and to maintain their ties and be active, which most of my sisters were, but not the brothers.
Your brother Morris, a former U.S. representative, wasn’t active, but your three sisters were.
[He laughs.] Morris, my brother Mo, at the age of twelve or thirteen was thrown out of Sunday school class. He was always a free spirit.
Why was that?
For making fun of his teacher and his sense of humor. Among our three boys, I was the one who was most active, so I guess I got more credit for that reason.
As you raised your own children, did you make any attempt to give them a religious upbringing? Did you take, or send, them to church?
The older boys in McLean, Virginia, where we lived, fell in with Mormon kids, and they went to Sunday school for a while, but we didn’t press it hard, and that sort of petered out after a while. So our children haven’t had strong ties with the church, but they haven’t drifted over to other churches.
They’re still Mormons?
Yes. Four of them were baptized.
Among the papers you sent me, I found an interesting one written in the 1960s, “An Appeal for Full Fellowship for the Negro,” by Stewart Udall. You were a Democrat, a liberal, and Secretary of the Interior. Obviously you were high on President Kennedy’s list. Were there at this time political differences you began to feel with the church and was this part of why you became inactive?
That was part of it, very definitely. During all of my reading during the war, I developed what is now called pejoratively a “liberal conviction.” I was politically drawn to Franklin Roosevelt. I also became politically active early. And I developed strong convictions about civil rights early. I joined the NAACP while I was in the army, which will [p.71]show you something. When I was a young lawyer, there was a statewide organization formed—I was one its organizers—to repeal the Arizona segregation laws. So I took part in that. And as a congressman and a member of the cabinet, I had liberal views on most everything, but particularly on civil rights. I just felt blacks and other minorities were human beings like the rest of us and should be treated accordingly.
I was increasingly dismayed by the rigidity of the church’s position, and I used to talk/correspond with Sterling McMurrin that this wasn’t justified on the basis of church doctrine. It was very harmful when Brigham Young University became a focus of demonstrations during the 1960s—their athletic teams and so on. I thought this put the church in an awful light that was sort of like South Africa. It implied that we favored apartheid in our own way. The first year that I was in the cabinet, I was seen by the First Presidency and had a pleasant visit with President David O. McKay and others. But I held my peace until finally in 1967 I just said to myself, “Well, I occupy a national office. They’ll have to listen.” And I wrote that piece which I am very proud of to this day. I think Sterling McMurrin or somebody helped me get it published. The national press was increasingly picturing the church in a very bad light, and I thought that maybe I could have some influence. Maybe I did; but I got very stern rebuking letters from Spencer Kimball who was an apostle and from Apostle Delbert Stapley, the two Arizona apostles. They were upbraiding me. Those letters are in my papers at the University of Arizona. I got a lot of hate mail from Mormon people and it was painful; but I didn’t reply to the letters. I said, “Well, I made a statement, a statement of conscience,” and there it sits. Then, of course, when he became president a few years later, President Kimball, whom I consider the most inspired Mormon president of this century, did the right thing, and I’ve been enormously pleased by it.
What has happened to your belief in Mormon theology? Do you still have a testimony? Did you have one in your early years?
I did have when I was a missionary. As I read more and more widely, I became a kind of free thinker, and that encouraged the side of me which is to be free and non-conforming. And as a result of that—it was a slow drift—I began having more and more reservations [p.72]about doctrine. It was painful for me, too—partly because of my parents but partly because of my attachment to Mormon history and Mormon culture. I wanted to maintain my ties. I say proudly today that “I’m a Mormon” and always have been and I’m proud of that heritage.
You’ve never considered asking to have your name be removed from the rolls?
No. I’m Mormon born and bred, and it’s inside me, and I still have elements of faith in some things. I prize my Mormon heritage and status. I’ve never had any desire to sever any ties; in fact, some of them have grown stronger these last years.
Do you believe the story of Joseph Smith and the gold plates?
I have a strong mind; I have a very rational mind; and I’m a free thinker, as I’ve said. I don’t go out of my way to wrestle with that—the kind of thing that to me is not the heart of Mormonism.
You were quite instrumental in organizing a reunion between the Lees and the Fanchers, both names associated with the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Tell me a little about that.
I want to preface this by saying that my mother, who was a very strong person and very important in my life—as important as my father— was a granddaughter of John D. Lee. Back then when she was a young woman, back at the turn of the century, this was a burden for those people to bear and the church kind of laid it on them. The Sunday school lessons taught it was the work of one evil man.
John D. Lee.
Yes. That didn’t affect Mother’s faith or her feeling about the church as a whole; it affected her thinking that the church leaders doing this (allowing Lee to be a scapegoat) were wrong-headed. This hung over her life and she talked to me about it later. Juanita Brooks who wrote the book [The Mountain Meadows Massacre] was a heroine to her, and as a result of this I got acquainted with Juanita, and corresponded with her. That got me emotionally involved in a way that my cousin, the late Rex Lee [former U.S. solicitor and BYU president], for example, wasn’t, because his father died before he was born. My views were known and two wonderful people, Vern Lee, who lives in California— he’s a good Mormon—and a Fancher descendant began talk-[p.73]ing in about 1988 about whether it was possible to bring the families together and, in effect, bury the dead and bury the issue. They brought me into it, and I was glad they did, and I went out of my way to help. I made trips to Salt Lake and did other things, too, to see if this could be done. President Gordon B. Hinckley received us. I don’t know what he knew about me or how he viewed me at that point, but he was very gracious and we talked about it. I remember telling him, “The families can close the book. The church cannot. The families can do it, but we want you there.”
If I were president of the Mormon church, what would you tell me now?
I wouldn’t venture to be so presumptuous as to start telling people what to do. I think the great traditions of the Mormons, of our people, are to me one of the great American stories. And I’d say, “You’re doing a pretty good job.” You know what they’ve done at Nauvoo and other places. Preserve that story and be true to it. Release some of the old records; the church sometimes is as secretive as the CIA, you know. There hasn’t really been what historians would regard as a first-rate biography of Brigham Young, for example; and he was one of the great men of this country, no question about it. I don’t know why they don’t let bona fide historians get the records and tell the true story. All of us are human, nobody’s perfect, including leaders of the church. We have our personal flaws, and I think the church certainly has a higher status today than it did twenty, thirty years ago. I’d also say, be more ecumenical. You’ve elicited out of me why I’ve become very ecumenical. One of my dearest friends here in Santa Fe—he just died a year ago—was a Franciscan priest, an historian, and an artist. We became great friends when I was working on a book on Spanish history. I’ve become an expert on the Spanish part of our history which also laps over with the Mormon. I think religion is terribly important.
Are you a spiritual man?
I don’t know that I’d characterize myself as spiritual, but I think that I have a feeling for humanity in that sense. I keep asking myself, “Where would the world be, where would this country be, if the churches weren’t there?” In terms of maintaining ethics and values and order and so on. I tell some of my friends who don’t hold that view that they ought to think about it; that they’re wrong. So I value much [p.74]of what the church does today. I think it makes a good contribution to humanity and to the lives of people.
Can you see a situation where you’d return to active status?
I’ll just say I haven’t closed that door, but I’m seventy-seven.
What happens when you die? Do you still feel there’s a celestial kingdom awaiting you?
I’ve had a long, rich life, and I have my own intellectual doubts and reservations, but I don’t let that completely dominate my thinking. I’m more open to things than I might’ve been earlier. You know, I’ve never been in the category of what people would call an atheist, an agnostic at times, I’d say, but I don’t know that those labels cover me.
Do you ever feel any conflicts over your beliefs?
I’m at peace with myself. And I’m at peace with the church in the frame of reference I’m telling you about. I have strong feelings when my relatives and friends die; I give funeral speeches in the Mormon church. And they’re more tributes, of course, than sermons. I’m fortunate, I guess, in that I don’t feel strange. But I want to maintain my relationships and esteem that I have for the church. I was fascinated, not surprised, that President Hinckley would receive me, not as a Mormon in good standing, but as someone whom he respected. I like that.
I hear people talking about “good Mormons.” What makes one a “good” Mormon, and is that term offensive to you?
No, I guess it isn’t. It could, but I sort of floated above it. I guess that’s one of the reasons I strayed: the orthodoxy, “here’s the catechism, here’s what you must believe, now repeat it back to me.” This is something that I just intellectually can’t adjust to, and, therefore, I know what you’re talking about, if somebody said, “Well, Udall’s fallen away; Udall’s not a good Mormon.” That doesn’t bother me. I simply say, “Well, I’m my own unique kind of Mormon and I’ll stay that way. So don’t you pass judgement on me, and I won’t on you.”
How do you think you’re viewed by active Mormons?
I haven’t had unpleasant contacts. We don’t receive ward teachers and so on. I have a cousin who’s a bishop, and I’d say there are people there and I counsel with them and they’re good, prominent Mormons, [p.75]and so on. So don’t press me, please. Rex Lee and I were looking through some correspondence we had. He was much younger than I, but we had a very fine, warm relationship the last twenty years. I’m proud I had a hand in starting his career. He was one of the first law clerks for [Supreme Court] Justice Byron White; he was one of my friends.
I’m not boasting of this in a family way, but it’s one of the things that says to me what inner strength the church provides for people— “inner strength,” not just in a spiritual sense. I grew up in this little town; there were probably 600 or 800 Mormons. This one little place produced—and neither one of them had a chance to go to law school—two justices of the Arizona Supreme Court:my father and my uncle. It has produced a lot of judges and lawyers—Rex Lee who was the solicitor general, president of the Brigham Young [University]; Shumway, the president of Brigham Young in Hawaii, is from St. Johns. My brother, a candidate for president …
And yourself, a congressman and Secretary of the Interior …
All out of one little town.
Maybe it’s the water, Stewart.
I think the church had a lot to do with it.