Teacher of Religion
[p. 105] By the age of twenty-three, Sterling, you had received your master’s degree and had a job teaching for the Mormon church. Natalie continued teaching school in Idaho, and the two of you were hoping to save enough to marry soon. Is that right?
That’s correct, Jack, and the date tells it all. Being in Utah in 1937 meant being where money was very scarce. My parents had helped some with expenses, but Natalie and I were each pretty much self-supporting at this point. We were both just squeaking by, the way most students did in those days.
Even so, I considered going straight for my doctorate. Ephraim Ericksen and Waldemer Read both believed that the only respectable place for me to study philosophy was the University of Chicago. I applied for a fellowship there, with strong support from them and President Thomas. In the middle of the Great Depression, however, there were simply no fellowships or scholarships available for me there or anywhere else. So Ericksen and Read urged me to apply for a position teaching high school seminary for the LDS church. Read had taught seminary for a number of years before he turned to the study of philosophy at the University of Chicago and then joined the University of Utah faculty.
What was your initial reaction to their advice?
To be frank with you, I hardly knew what a seminary was. They didn’t have such things in California. But I was willing, so Read drove me downtown to see Dr. Lynn Bennion, who was the supervisor of LDS seminaries. I’d never met him before. Lynn told me their faculty positions were all filled but they might add one more teacher.
Lynn then introduced me to Dr. Franklin L. West, the church Commissioner of Education. When they learned that I was engaged to be married, they wanted to meet Natalie. They asked about my tastes in music and literature and my attitudes toward religion and the church, but never raised questions regarding my religious orthodoxy. I thought they were great. A couple of days after meeting Natalie, Lynn called me [p.106] up and offered me the position of second teacher in Richfield, Utah. Richfield had always had a one-man seminary, Moroni W. Smith, but it had grown enough to need another teacher. I accepted right away, but I think they hired me with the hope of getting Natalie!
What kind of salary did they offer you?
The pay was $1,300 a year, which shocked Read. He thought it would be more like $1,800. I think they had been paying more before the Depression. At any rate, $1,300 sounded like a lot of money to me! And it was better than the average salary for new high school teachers in Utah at that time.
Why would that be?
Well, as I understand it, seminary teachers averaged more education than high school teachers. Quite a few had masters’ degrees then, although I was the first to show up with a master’s in philosophy. That appealed to both Dr. Bennion and Dr. West. I must tell you, though, that I didn’t stay long at $1,300. At the end of my first year, I told Lynn Bennion that I was going to get married. He asked, “Are you marrying the woman you introduced me to last year?” When I said, “Yes, Natalie Cotterel,” he replied, “You marry her and we will raise your salary fifty dollars next year!”
Looking back, would you still have been a seminary teacher?
In many ways, I’m sorry I did it. It was an impediment, I think, to my progress in education, even though I didn’t see many other financial alternatives at the time. But in other ways, it was a good experience and very rewarding. The main rewards were the people who became our friends, especially Lynn Bennion and Frank West. It was also through this experience that I became lifelong friends with Lowell Bennion, Obert Tanner, George Boyd, Boyer Jarvis, Stewart Udall, and others. Those friendships were a wonderful benefit of my seminary years.
You went to Richfield a single man and married Natalie the following summer?
Natalie and I were married in June 1938, so she was with me during the second year in Richfield. During 1939-40 I taught in Montpelier, Idaho, then transferred to Mesa and Tempe, Arizona, for two years—1940-42. I contracted to teach half-time at the seminary and half-time at the Religious Conference of Arizona State College, now Arizona State University.
Then in the spring of 1942 you were granted a year’s leave of absence [p. 107] without pay to work on your doctorate?
Yes, but not without pay; I received $15 a month from the church. Natalie and I had been going to the University of Southern California every summer since 1938. So with the summer of 1942, the academic school year of 1942-43, and the summer of 1943, I was able to finish my course work. Then in 1943 I became director of the LDS Institute of Religion at the University of Arizona in Tucson and served there for two and a half years—till the winter of 1945. It was during this time that I wrote my doctoral dissertation.
The University of Southern California offered me a position on its philosophy faculty beginning in the fall of 1945, but I’d already agreed to remain as director of the institute for a third year. So we compromised. I went back to Tucson for the first semester, until they could find someone else, and then in January of 1946 we moved to Los Angeles.
So your seven-and-a-half-year career as an LDS religion teacher came to a close. How did you like teaching seminary and institute?
I was very interested in the subject matter I was teaching, but I really wasn’t much good as a teacher for high school kids. To be frank with you, I had a very difficult time putting my stuff on a high-school level. I liked college-level teaching better.
What about your relation with local church leaders and students’ parents?
Well, in Richfield, it was very pleasant. I got along well with all three members of the stake presidency, and one became a particularly good friend. Smith—he didn’t care much for “Moroni” as a name, so he went by M. W.—was in charge of the seminary. They may have been glad when I moved on, but I don’t think there was any effort to get rid of me; and Smith seemed quite unhappy when I left. Except for a few real collisions over my religious liberalism, he and I got along very well.
Sterling, you must have been seen as reasonably orthodox at the start or they wouldn’t have hired you in the first place.
I guess it depends on what you mean by “reasonably.” I can say this: my attitudes then and now are very positive toward religion. I’ve always felt that I am a genuinely religious person. So my attitude was as positive as the most orthodox, but my beliefs simply were not orthodox even in 1937. Ericksen and Read knew I wasn’t orthodox, but they were of the opinion that it wouldn’t cause me any serious problems in working for the church.
Those were different times.
Yes. After my first meeting with Lynn, I went down a second time and had a very pleasant conversation with him and Dr. West. They didn’t [p.108] examine my orthodoxy, and I didn’t volunteer any information—though I would certainly have been candid about my heresies if they’d asked.
This is what I’m getting at. Were you a heretic then?
Oh yes, I was already becoming a good, well-rounded heretic. I didn’t believe that Joseph Smith had seen the Father and the Son in the first vision. I didn’t believe the Book of Mormon was an authentic ancient document. I thought Adam and Eve were cultural myths, and I didn’t accept the divinity of Christ. Shall I go on?
That’s quite a collection of statements for a Mormon of any stripe. Why don’t you comment on the evolution of your religious ideas through the college years.
It’s fair to say, Jack, that I’m intellectually and emotionally constructed with a rather strong religious disposition. I see religion as a profound, important sentiment, not a theological formula or something one finds at the end of a syllogism.
It’s more a set of values than a set of beliefs?
Religion is a matter of feeling, of disposition. I’m of the opinion that religion, to be entirely acceptable, must be supportable by rational argument; but the rational argument is not the religion. Theology is an attempt to be reasonable about religion, and it’s important. Otherwise, religion would become a matter of emotion and affective enthusiasm. Of course, to some that’s what religion is, but this to me is a very bad form of religion.
So theology provides boundaries for the expression of religious sentiment?
Exactly. There couldn’t be any genuine religion independent of emotion and passion, but reason and theology set some bounds around these passions. Well, my point is that I have what I honestly believe is a constitutional makeup which is congenial to religion. During my adolescence, my religious feelings probably got the better of my reason quite regularly. I was religious as a child, probably due to family upbringing and community environment, but also by personal temperament. I became very attached to the church during my high school years in Los Angeles. We weren’t one of those families who ran down to the church every time the lights were on; but we were very active, and I was very much involved in ward activities.
And when you came to the University of Utah?
I had a solid foundation in readings about the church’s theology and attended church regularly during my freshman year while living with [p.109] my aunt and uncle. They were in the Yale Ward, near your home on Harvard Avenue, Jack. It was very pleasant for me. During my second year, however, the cows interfered with Sunday schedule and I saw the inside of a church only two or three times. During my remaining years in college, I was somewhat indifferent to religious attendance. I don’t mean that I became indifferent to religion or developed negative attitudes about Mormonism or ceased to be interested in its theology. I simply didn’t show up at church very often.
That’s a fairly typical experience for a college student.
I suppose so. And of course, the LDS church didn’t have college wards at the university; although the University Ward, adjacent to the campus, roughly served that function. Lowell Bennion was teaching his institute of religion classes in that building at that time. I didn’t attend his classes and I’m sorry about that. He would have been a very good influence on me. We became very good friends, though; and we had many long conversations about religion. We’re still close friends.
There’s a tendency for Latter-day Saints in this area to sharply differentiate between active and “inactive” members. Was that true in your undergraduate days?
Well, there were certainly insiders and outsiders; but the outsiders were members of other churches. No, a person in those days could be more or less inactive and still be accepted as a full-fledged member. I think the LDS church goes in for Chamber of Commerce figures. If you haven’t been kicked out or taken to the cemetery, you get counted. They keep track of you. I was not a churchgoer when I was hired, although I attended church regularly while I was teaching. I had nothing against attending church. My “falling away,” if that’s what they call it, during my undergraduate days, was sheer laziness. I’d rather sleep in on Sunday mornings than get up and go to church. I was not irreligious or disillusioned with the church in any way.
Did you find the nature of your faith changing during these years?
I think that my approach to religion became more intellectual, if I can put it like that. I had the same positive feelings about the church; but my main religious activity was conversations with professors Ericksen, Read, Tornay, and other members of the university faculty. Professor Louis Zucker and I would have long conversations on Judaism, Christianity, and Mormonism. Ericksen was radical in his theology but devoted to the church’s purposes, especially its work with young people. These were serious religious discussions. Nobody was flippant or disrespectful toward religion, even at their most critical moments.
[p. 110] These were very fruitful years for the development of your religious thought.
Oh, yes, and it had nothing to do with showing up in church. Have I told you that Ericksen assigned me the project of writing text materials for him during my graduate year for a class he taught on the history of moral thought? Well, that was quite an interesting experience. Ericksen was not a scholar of competence in the Old Testament, but he had the feel of it and a scholarly approach to it. He understood the moral substance of prophetic religion. He couldn’t find a textbook he was willing to use, so he enlisted me. He’d indicate the kinds of things he liked—largely the works of ethicists and some of the more liberal biblical scholars in Old Testament studies. He’d sketch out an idea or two in conversation, then tell me to write up a chapter with accompanying readings. It kept me busy trying to stay ahead of his class. The stuff was mimeographed for his students.
I didn’t keep a full set of the chapters I had written, but when I came back to the University of Utah in 1948, Waldemer Read, who was chair of the department at the time, gave me his entire set of copies.
Working through these Old Testament materials—really coming to terms with these various scholarly approaches—must have been tremendously important for the development of your own religious thought. What specifically did you conclude was most important?
The Old Testament interests me much more than the New Testament to this very day, even though I recently wrote and published Toward Understanding the New Testament (1990) with Obert Tanner and Max Rogers. The historical sweep of the Old Testament is very impressive, with the variety of religious ideas and experiences in it and the fundamental contrast between priests and prophets. The prophets with their religiously grounded morality often stood in sharp judgment of the priests with their institutionalized, ceremonial, rule-following religion.
The prophet-priest distinction is so evident in Ezekiel’s writing as he plays these two themes off each other.
Yes, and Deuteronomy is a prophet-priestly work—one of history’s most important socio-religious documents. But Amos and Jeremiah were my favorite prophets. They modeled an approach to religious writing that was simultaneously positive and critical. Liberal in the old-fashioned sense of liberal religion.
Sterling, it seems to me that many people come to know religion primarily as a social phenomenon—they enjoy the religious culture and their church friends—and then develop their moral and ethical commitments out of that [p. 111] experience. But I hear you saying that your commitment arose more from the theology, the philosophy, and the history. Is that right?
Well, I’m not sure. That certainly is a proper characterization of my approach over the last several decades, in which I’ve focused primarily on religious ideas. But as I think back into adolescence and childhood, I remember experiencing feelings of worship and awe connected directly to nature. I remember terrifying thunderstorms in the wild that produced a sense of awe, fear, even mystery. It’s the quality that Rudolf Otto identified as the numinous in his book The Idea of the Holy—the sense of being overwhelmed by awful majesty. I sometimes wonder whether I could have become a mystic if I had let myself go. I don’t want to exaggerate this, of course; and, mind you, I’m not sorry that I didn’t follow my mystic tendencies. I have a more mystical nature than you and, believe me, it isn’t something one works at!
How would you characterize those experiences that made you wonder a little?
I was always alone when I felt these things. Wasn’t it Alfred North Whitehead who said, “Religion is what one does with his solitude”? That was the case for me. I usually wanted to be alone until I met Natalie. Then I just wanted to be with her. But as an adolescent, I used to seek opportunities to be alone. In my solitude, I sometimes had what I believe were genuine religious experiences.
Are these feelings similar to moments of artistic or moral ecstasy—when a magnificent symphony performance or witnessing a selfless act of generosity causes the boundary between yourself and the world around you to blur or temporarily seem to disappear?
I’d say that there’s a real connection, yes, although I’m inclined to agree with Otto that religion, art, and morals, though intimately related, are autonomous and that it’s an error to reduce religion to morals or religion to art. The mainstream liberal development in modern religion has, I think, been guilty of that error—reducing religion to morals.
What about extending it to personal contact? How do you respond to people whose religious experiences are tied up with seeing a divine personage or hearing the voice of God?
I’ve never had the inclination to associate my experience with persons. This doesn’t mean that I don’t think in terms of a relationship with God, but such a thing as encountering Christ has never had any real meaning for me—not in the sense that it does for many Christians. I’m not making fun of these people; but whenever I hear that popular song you hear at funerals and in church, “In the Garden”—do you know it?
[p. 112] I think the chorus goes: “And He walks with me and He talks with me, and He tells me I am His own”?
That’s it. It always makes me think of hearing Reinhold Niebuhr lecture on religion and sex, in which he stated that many women fall in love erotically with Christ. In relation to that song, he used the phrase “peripatetic eroticism.” Well, I’m afraid that there are a great many things associated with religious experience that are not particularly admirable, and a fixation on persons may be one of them. And now that I’ve just picked on this song, I should hasten to add that music has had a tremendous effect on me—much more of an effect than most of the things I have read. And I certainly know what you mean, Jack, when I consider the selflessness some people exhibit in their moral lives—and the effects their actions have on me.
We’ve come to a simple truth for me. I virtually never have a religious experience in an institutional setting.
Oh, church is no place to go to get a religious experience! Unless you go in when no one else is there.
But some people do. We can’t deny their experiences, which I know are genuine to the core for many of our friends in different faiths, including Mormonism.
I guess they do have religious experiences. I won’t say they don’t. But here, now, a friend told me that she had a very profound religious experience during the University of Utah Tanner Lecture of 1983, when former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt was discussing German and American politics.
I have had such an experience myself, about that same year, listening to Barry Lopez talk about writing Arctic Dreams. He spoke of things I too have seen and felt alone in wilderness that have quickened my spirit—my sense of what matters ultimately. I rejoice at being alive when I reflect on those moments. My spine tingles.
To get us back on the subject, I’ve always felt that one of the major strengths in Mormon theology is its concern for reasonableness in religion. I see John A. Widtsoe as making a major contribution to this facet of Mormonism through his book Rational Theology. So did James E. Talmage and B. H. Roberts.
I’m sitting here savoring a transcendent experience, and you’re trying to talk Mormon theology again! Well, how do you explain Widtsoe’s theology in light of the church’s early history?
Let’s take the moment of Mormonism’s greatest outburst of religious enthusiasm, in Kirtand, Ohio. People were having visions, hearing [p.113] angelic choirs singing at the temple dedication, receiving revelations, planning to build a new Jerusalem, and so forth. It seems pretty clear to me in reading it that there was a fair amount of delusion; and when they got through cleaning the place up, there were only half the members left. Now I think this set a rather good example that was generally followed later by the church. Religion should be reasonable, not just an outburst of emotion.
Can you expand on that? It sounds to me ominously like the church’s crackdown on liberals, feminists, working mothers, and homosexuals.
Yes, for instance during the Mormon Reformation of 1857-58, when Jedediah Grant was hustling around the Salt Lake Valley calling people to repentance and having people rebaptized for playing cards or swearing, it was a very intense period, but it didn’t last very long. It was like a burst of emotion that reason soon dispelled. As another example, it’s still in the LDS Articles of Faith that we believe in the gift of tongues. There are many reported examples of such manifestations in early church history. Well, I’ve never heard anyone speak in tongues in the Mormon church. My father told me that he’d never encountered it. My mother remembers one example, a woman in the ward she lived in; but there was no one to interpret it, so it wasn’t taken as an authentic manifestation. My point is that the church gives lip service to some things that it’s not really willing to accept in practice at the present time. There’s a kind of rationality that tends to pervade Mormonism and keep down excessive enthusiasm—sooner or later. The purge that is going on now will pass, too, but I hope it doesn’t take too long. It is too often a purge in the wrong direction—against those who are attempting to be reasonable and face the facts.
The church excommunicates people for being too enthusiastic or too liberal. You and I tend to know the latter, but what about the too enthusiastic? And what about Joseph Smith? Was he a mystic?
I’ve certainly known Mormons who were involved in spiritual excesses of various kinds, but none of them have been the type of people whom you would take very seriously. William James gave some attention to Joseph Smith in his The Varieties of Religious Experience, but he doesn’t make a real mystic of Joseph Smith. Paul M. Edwards, the chief philosopher of the Reorganized LDS church, did some very competent work on Joseph Smith’s mysticism, but an equally competent critique has been made of that position by Max Nolan, who is in the Education Ministry in Western Australia. It seems clear to me that there’s not a good case for Joseph Smith being a true mystic. He was certainly charismatic, but not a mystic.
[p.114] What are your views on the Book of Mormon?
I’ve never read the entire Book of Mormon, Jack. Brig Madsen and I were having lunch a while ago with Ernest Poulson, former head of personnel at the University of Utah, when the subject of the Book of Mormon came up. “Oh, I’ve read every word of it,” said Ernest. We were surprised and asked, “When did you do that?” It turned out that when he was in a World War II POW camp in Romania he read the whole thing. It was the only book he had to read.
Why haven’t you felt a need to read it, Sterling, if only to make an informed decision? Aren’t you like anyone else who condemns a book without reading it or pans a film without seeing it?
I simply haven’t been able to take the Book of Mormon seriously as an authentic record, considering the claims of its coming from an angel and being translated by a miracle. But I have read enough of it to know that it has a confused theology and is a mixture of good and bad religion.
Given, then, your feelings about Joseph Smith, the social role of the church, and the other issues we’ve discussed here, did you feel any conflict in going to work for the church?
Yes and no. No in the sense that I had a genuine love for the church as an institution and its people. My attitude was entirely positive in spite of the fact that I was in various ways as critical of the church as I am now. I consider this to be in-house criticism.
Loyal opposition. I was devoted to the church, really was, and am right now. I’ve always considered myself as Mormon as these orthodox Mormons, though I have been a confirmed heretic. You have to realize, too, that in those days there was much greater liberality in matters of this kind, especially among the general authorities. The same was true of Brigham Young University under President Franklin S. Harris. He was a man of real breadth and depth. He’s the person who made the BYU into a university.
When did this spirit of liberality begin to flag at BYU?
It certainly flagged when Ernest L. Wilkinson became president in 1951. He was an extremely conservative president in everything except building expansion, but the atmosphere in the church had already changed, thanks to the influence of J. Reuben Clark, Jr. He became a member of the First Presidency in 1933 and remained a power to be reckoned with through the 1950s—until his death in 1961. As he gained [p.115] in power, the leadership of the church began to clamp down in matters of doctrine. Authoritarianism took over.
Did you have any encounters with J. Reuben Clark?
Well, not directly, but I certainly felt the impact of his views. During the summer of 1938, when Natalie and I were newly married and I had a contract to teach a second year at Richfield, we attended the BYU Aspen Grove program held for seminary and religion teachers. It lasted six weeks, and they expected us to be there. Because Natalie and I were both attending summer school at the University of Southern California, we got permission to show up a week late.
What was it like?
We camped out, really. The Wests and the Bennions had cabins, but here were the seminary, institute, and BYU religion teachers from all over the West living in tents. We divided ourselves up pretty quickly into liberal and conservative camps, and I landed among the liberals. Guest speakers came in every week for the Sunday morning service. Among the speakers were John A. Widtsoe, J. Reuben Clark, and myself. Recently appointed to the First Presidency of the church, Clark gave his notorious address which was printed immediately in the Improvement Era (Summer 1938). It continues to be cited even today.
This was President Clark’s clarion call for orthodoxy and obedience in the ranks of church educators. The former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico’s retreat from the larger world of ideas?
Yes, and church leaders still bring it up whenever they’re inaugurating a president at BYU or Ricks. It quite clearly lays down the law on matters of academic freedom in church institutions: there is to be no freedom in matters pertaining to religion and morals. Clark laid it out very firmly, and there was considerable discussion about it around our campfires. Natalie and I were included in the campfire discussion presided over by Newell K. Young, a grand old polygamist who had two wives and many children. He had decided that polygamy was wrong; but he was devoted to his wives and children. That evening by the campfire, Newell got up—white beard, majestic bearing, he really reminded me of an Old Testament prophet—and said, “I don’t know about the rest of you; but before I go to bed, I’m going over to see Lynn Bennion and resign.” He did, too.
But Lynn refused to accept his resignation?
Yes, Newell apparently did this quite often. Lynn later told me that when he left the seminaries to take his position as superintendent of Salt Lake City schools, he called Newell into his office and said, “Now, [p.116] Newell, I’m leaving this job. You can’t resign any more, because the next time you do, they’ll probably accept your resignation!”
I think that underscores the shift away from liberality in the church during those years.
No question about it. I always thought of President Clark as a conservative reactionary; but I tell you, Jack, if he were living today, he’d look as if he were right down the center, if not a little to the left.
When did you speak and what did you say?
Well, I spoke the very next Sunday, and Apostle John A. Widtsoe spoke the week after me. I addressed distinguishing characteristics of Mormon theology, especially our conception of a non-absolutistic God. Just the sort of thing I would say today. I didn’t respond to Clark’s remarks in any way. The following week Widtsoe really laid down the law, again, but not as a response to me. After that meeting was over, however, Natalie and I were walking back to our tent behind three or four seminary teachers who were more than a shade on the conservative side. The path was too narrow for us to pass, and they didn’t know we were with them. One of them announced, “Well, that was certainly better stuff than we heard last week.” Just then we reached a clearing where Natalie and I could walk past them. One man, seeing us, suddenly added, “Of course, there’s room for all kinds of opinions!”
Were any strictures placed on you that next year in Richfield as a result of President Clark’s call for strict orthodoxy among church educators?
Well, despite the changing atmosphere, I was determined to be absolutely honest. When I was invited to speak at the Third Ward’s sacrament meeting, I talked about the meaning of prayer and communion and commented how it could involve silent meditation. As an example, I said, “We run into this problem very often in fast meeting after someone has borne his or her testimony and it’s very quiet. If somebody doesn’t immediately get up to talk, the bishop will sometimes say, ‘Now, brothers and sisters, let’s not let this time go to waste.'”
Yes, I’ve heard that myself.
“Well,” I told these people, “the time wasn’t going to waste at all. That was the best part of the meeting—when everyone was being quiet.” I turned to the bishop and said, “Of course this couldn’t happen in your ward.” It was in the nature of a joke, but I could see the expression on his face, and by damn, he didn’t like it one bit. The next week was fast meeting, and the bishop got up and said—one of my students told me this—”We want you to ignore what a certain speaker had to say here last week. We don’t want any of this time to go to waste.”
[p.117] One of my students came in the next day and told me very seriously, “I just want to tell you to stay on the west side of Main Street; if you go on the east side”—Third Ward was on the east side—”you’re gonna be in trouble.”
So you were persona non grata in at least one ward.
I taught Sunday school briefly in the ward where I lived. I never lasted very long in these jobs. One Sunday I was walking back to Mrs. Hansen’s large house where I lived that first year with the coach and the music teacher from the high school—all of us unmarried. I heard footsteps running behind me, and here came a man from my class. He said, “Brother McMurrin, I want you to know that I tell these people they don’t understand you.” I said, “Now look, that’s not the problem. The problem is they do understand me.”
Your youthful candor was splitting the community down the middle.
Exactly. There was a lot of animosity developing against me, even though some people were very much on my side. The next year when Natalie and I were married, a wonderful old couple, the Dastrups, invited us to dinner. She was as bright as they come, the local theologian, and she really grilled me on theology. Well, I answered her questions honestly, and one of them was, “Brother McMurrin, there are people here who suspect that you don’t believe in the divinity of Christ.” “Sister Dastrup,” I said, “I don’t.” And she almost collapsed.
Not what the local theologian expects to hear from the local seminary teacher.
She got that testimony look in her eye and that testimony sound in her voice and said, very earnestly, “I want you to know that I know as I live that Jesus is the Son of God, that he is a divine being … “Really laid it out effectively. This was probably not a proper thing for me to do, but I was young and didn’t have good sense, so I got that testimony look in my eye and that testimony tone in my voice and said, “I want to testify, to you that I know as I live that he was not divine and he was not the son of God.” She gasped and said, “I never thought I’d ever hear anyone say that.” Well, she was shocked but she took it in her stride and didn’t judge me an enemy.
You have to hand it to that woman. That was an audacious response to her and she handled it gracefully.
Oh, much more gracefully than I did. And there’s certainly nothing unique about that kind of testimonial fervor. George Boyd and I used to frequent some evangelical spots in Los Angeles during the summers when he was working on his philosophy degree at USC. I remember once with Lynn Bennion we visited Father Divine’s, the black man [p.118] whose followers accepted him as God. They would all sit down together and share a holy meal. Well, there was no room at the table for the three of us, but lots of people were milling around, so we circulated and talked with quite a few of them. Before we left, we became conscious that an older black fellow had had his eye on us the whole time. He followed us back to the car, and we nodded to him while I was unlocking the car doors. Then he said, “Well, boys, I suppose this looks like a lot of nonsense to you,” and we politely protested, “Oh, no, no,” and he got that Mormon missionary glint in his eye and that Mormon testimony tone in his voice and said, “Yes, it looks very foolish to you, but I want to tell you boys that this man is Almighty God.” Man, he laid it out! He was as impressive as any prophet I’ve ever listened to.
And probably just as sincere. How did your boss in Richfield, Moroni Smith, respond to the controversy surrounding you?
He told me that he’d been a liberal in his day. As a matter of fact, I read his master’s thesis, which he’d written at BYU. It was on primitivisms in the Old Testament and was a good treatment of the subject. But he took offense at my liberality from time to time. I remember I cut out a verse by Edwin Arlington Robinson and stuck it on my bulletin board. It said: “Peace on Earth. We sing it/We pay ten thousand priests to bring it./After nineteen hundred years at Mass/ We’ve got as far as poison gas.” Made Smith mad as the devil. Oddly enough, he didn’t want me to leave. When Lynn Bennion asked me if I’d go head up a seminary elsewhere, and I agreed, Smith was quite unhappy.
What about ecclesiastical leaders in Richfield—except for the bishop of the Third Ward?
The stake president, a dentist, didn’t take to my stuff. But one of the counselors, a Dr. Gledhill, was very friendly. I did some home teaching with another M.D., Dr. Ostler, a wonderful person liberal in his interpretations of Mormonism. The principal of the high school, Angus Maughan, was absolutely first-rate too. I had a close friendship with him. No, Richfield was nothing like what I encountered in Montpelier the next year.
Well, let’s hear about that, Sterling!
I really locked horns with the stake president in Montpelier the next year, even though his two counselors were very much for me, which made the thing interesting.
What were the details of that episode?
The stake president, Silas Wright, lived in Bennington, a little farming community outside Montpelier, and he apparently heard from [p.119] the father of one of my students that I’d taught that not everything in the Old Testament was true—specifically, that God had ordered the Israelites to kill off all of the women and children of the conquered cities during the invasion of Canaan. I said to the boy’s father when he came to see me about it, “Now, I want you to face this question. Would you rather have me teach your son that God ordered these atrocities—that God could be immoral—or teach him that whoever put that item in the Bible was probably mistaken?” I might say that, in the course of our conversation, he asked me which came first, the New Testament or the Old Testament.
Not exactly a student of the scriptures. What did he say?
He thought this over very carefully, very seriously, and I waited for his reply. At last he said, “I’d rather have you teach that God ordered murder than have you teach that there’s anything in the Bible that is in error.” This rather shocked me. It was not a view characteristic of Mormons.
I can see why.
What the hell can you do in a case like that? And then one of my students told me, “I thought you’d be interested in knowing that you’re the subject of our ward teaching lesson this month. The ward teachers are warning the parents to be sure that their kids don’t take seminary from you next year.”
It sounds as if there was some personal conflict as well?
Not from me, but it was pretty clear that President Wright had no use for me and was anxious to use any excuse to get me out. Now the summer prior to my going there, when Natalie and I were in Los Angeles, the dean of the School of Religion at USC called me in and said that the Hollywood Methodist church had contacted him and wanted someone to come and teach their adult Sunday class. This church is a famous place just north of Hollywood Boulevard on Highland, a beautiful church often photographed because that’s where a lot of the movie stars get married and buried. Well, I taught the adult class there every week until it was time to leave. They wanted me to stay permanently, but of course I couldn’t do that.
Anyway, I didn’t tell anybody about it; but one Sunday I was asked to speak to the high priests class in the Montpelier Third Ward. Some of them liked what I had to say—
And some didn’t?
A friend of mine ran the drugstore, which was open on Sunday. Several men had come in after my class, he said, and one of them [p.120] exclaimed, “Well, I don’t know why in the world they let him teach our young people, because he’s not even a member of the church. He’s a damned Methodist minister!”
Back to Idaho…
That was 1939, the year Vardis Fisher’s great novel The Children of God came out and the county library in Montpelier invited me to review the book. It wasn’t a big place, and it was absolutely jammed. People were standing in the halls and sitting in the windows. I took the position that Fisher’s stuff basically had good historical merits, and I read them his impressive description of Joseph Smith’s first vision. Once again people were divided on whether they agreed with me or not.
I think the only thing that really offended me was something the stake president Silas Wright did. Natalie’s mother, who lived in American Falls, Idaho, wasn’t very, well; and we went to take care of her the weekend of stake conference. I had no duties at the conference; but when President Wright noticed that I wasn’t in the audience, he seized the chance to get at me. Still, we ended the year in pretty good shape, partly because his two counselors were very fair-minded.
Did he complain about you to Lynn Bennion or Frank West?
As a matter of fact, he did. Late in the year Lynn Bennion came up to iron things out in a meeting with me and the stake presidency. He managed to smooth things over, but he told me, “You and Heber Snell”—Heber C. Snell was a fine biblical scholar and then head of the LDS institute at Idaho State “are both in trouble. I had to flip with Frank West to see which one we got, and I got you.” I would have just quit at the end of the year, but Lynn worked out a proposal with Frank West. Arizona State wanted to establish a program of religious studies, and the church agreed to furnish an instructor half time to teach these college courses. Lynn offered me the job of heading the LDS seminary in Mesa half-time and teaching in the college at Tempe half-time.
A much more compatible situation for you.
Yes, it was a definite inducement. I don’t know why they wanted me to stay in church education at all. President Heber J. Grant had given them explicit instructions to fire me.
Over the problems in Montpelier?
Oh, no. It was because of an article I had published. In those days the Church Education Department published Weekday Religious Education, a nice professional journal for religion teachers. In the early summer of 1939, Dr. West, the Commissioner of Education, asked me to write an article on the philosophy of religion that would be appropriate for a [p.121] graduate seminar in philosophy. I dealt with absolutism and non-absolutism in theology and their implications for religious-based ethics. Dr. West liked it, and Weekday published it in December 1939. There was not a word of heresy in the piece. On the contrary, it was an argument for the LDS conception of God. One of the apostles, whom I shall not name but who was anxious to make trouble for the Department of Education, showed it to President Grant.
President Grant called Dr. West in—I got this story directly from him and also from Lynn Bennion—and there was the article laid out on the president’s desk. He said to West, “I have given this article to seven lawyers, seven lawyers, and every one of them agrees with me that this article is a lot of damn tommyrot. I want that man fired; you get rid of him. And this magazine is to be discontinued.” It was stopped, too.
And they sent you into exile in southern Arizona!
I suppose they thought President Grant would never find me down there. Same as Siberia, except for the weather. But on one of his trips, President Grant eventually found me in Mesa and we had a most cordial conversation.
At this time, Arizona State was developing an interdenominational religious studies program in cooperation with the Jews, Catholics, Protestants, and Mormons, and you got involved?
Yes, the president of the college was very enthusiastic about it. I think it was his idea. We had regular faculty meetings. I represented the Mormon church and the secretary of the group was a Mormon professor at the college. There was a Catholic priest, two Protestant ministers, and a Jewish rabbi. I taught half the classes and the other four split the other half among them.
Did you become close as a group?
I became very close friends with Abraham Lincoln Krone, the rabbi of the Reform congregation in Phoenix. He had moved to Phoenix from New York for his wife’s health. A marvelous human being, brilliant. He had a regular book review program on the radio. A few months earlier, he’d reviewed Vardis Fisher’s The Children of God. In the review he had some very favorable things to say about the Mormons; and at the next meeting of the Ministerial Society, one of the leading Protestant ministers said, “Krone, what we can’t understand is why you have such a positive attitude toward a bastard religion like Mormonism,” and as Krone told me, he replied, “If you Christian churches hadn’t been so illegitimate in your relations with one another, Mormonism wouldn’t be a bastard religion.”
[p.122] After your problems in Richfield and Montpelier, how did you get along with Arizona Mormons?
The stake presidency was 100 percent for me, and it made a big difference. Of course, some people were quite critical, but by that time I had become accustomed to it.
Did you hold leadership positions in the church in this period of your life?
As a matter of fact, I did, especially in Arizona. I served in the Sunday school presidency of the Maricopa Stake for some time, and then on the stake high council in Tucson, the governing board of the diocese, so to speak. I was quite involved at that level, and some hoped I would go higher.
But that was plenty for you. Even so, you had some memorable experiences, didn’t you?
The one that really stands out was a visit from Dr. John A. Widtsoe. He was the one who had raised the devil about that Weekday article, the one President Grant said they should fire me for writing. He came down to Tucson and we spent two or three hours talking very pleasantly together in my office while it was raining cats and dogs outside. It was the last conversation I had with Widtsoe. When a man came to take him to the train, I walked out on the veranda with him, we shook hands, and his parting words of advice to me were, “Well, preach the gospel; sugar-coat it where necessary.” He was a master sugar-coater.
Widtsoe had earlier served as president of the University of Utah. How did his academic values bear on his relationship with you?
Well, he had a spy on me in Los Angeles! Did I ever tell you that? It was while I was teaching the high priests in the Wilshire Ward. Byron Done, a close friend of mine, was a very intimate friend of John and Leah Widtsoe’s only son, who had died at an early age. Byron never came to Salt Lake City without calling on them. I used to see him around USC because he taught a class on Mormonism in the Department of Religion for the university. Done took me aside one day and said, “I hate to say this, but I had a long talk with Dr. Widtsoe recently and it’s clear to me that he’s got someone spying on you in that high priests’ class.” “Oh, really?” I said with surprise, “Who is it? …. I don’t know,” Byron said, “but it could be Barry Harris.” He may have known for sure but just wanted to put me on guard rather than exposing Harris.
Did you know Harris?
Yes, he was an older man whom I’d known ever since I was a high school kid. Sure enough, Barry Harris was there every week and I noticed that he was taking notes very carefully. And perhaps two or three [p.123] weeks later he said, “I want to be sure and get exactly straight what you said about such and such,” so I told him and he wrote it down. Then he had another question and wrote down the answer. He’d asked me questions before, but I hadn’t paid much attention to them. After he was all through, I said, “Brother Harris, I think I should tell you that I’m aware you’re spying on me for Dr. Widtsoe.” “Oh, no, no,” he said, very shocked and somewhat shaken. I said, “There’s no need of you telling me ‘no’ because I’m well aware that you’re keeping Dr. Widtsoe informed of what I’m saying. I don’t mind your telling him. If he were in the class, I’d say the same thing.” He caved in and said, “Well, I’m just doing what I was instructed to do.” Frankly, by this time these things didn’t bother me in the least, even though they’re quite disgusting from a moral point of view.
I’m amazed you had such a good conversation with Widtsoe during his Arizona visit. Was that the only incident involving church authorities during that period?
Well, now that I think of it, there was one other experience. Harold B. Lee, who was then an apostle, came to Tucson and stayed a couple of nights in the institute apartment with Natalie and me. The university had invited him down to give an evening lecture for their annual Religion Week. It was the Mormons’ turn that year. He did a beautiful job—all extemporaneous, very appropriate, one of the best statements by a Mormon I’d ever heard. The president of the university told me it was the best annual lecture on religion they’d ever had and by far the largest audience. Of course, Mormons came from far and near.
Apostle Harold Lee and I got along beautifully. He was very generous, most pleasant, but he was very critical of my predecessor, Daryl Chase. I defended Chase right up to the hilt, but I had the feeling that President Lee was really criticizing me because I was guilty of the same things he was criticizing in Chase and he knew it. Daryl went on to distinguish himself as president of Utah State University, and Apostle Lee went on to become president of the church.
You also got to know Spencer W. Kimball in Arizona, shortly after he became an LDS apostle.
Yes, Spencer Kimball was from Arizona and he came back on what I would call his maiden apostolic voyage just after I went to teach in Tucson, succeeding Lowell Bennion and Daryl Chase. He visited the stake I was in, and we became rather well acquainted. He was a delightful person. I invited him to the institute to meet with the students and to speak at our Sunday services. I enjoyed very much my contacts with him [p.124] while he was in southern Arizona. We were on a program together for the LDS stake conference.
Later on, a young man whose parents were friends of Apostle and Mrs. Kimball was studying in the university. He was as cantankerous as hell. The other Mormon students didn’t want anything to do with him. I intervened on his behalf and was as friendly toward him as I could be. Well, his mother came down to the institute to visit him and check things out. She proceeded to write a letter to Apostle Kimball about me and my evil doings. She said when I was speaking in the Sunday service in the chapel she felt the presence of the devil. I don’t know whether she considered me to be the devil or simply that the devil came through the place because of his association with me.
Apostle Kimball probably turned the letter over to Dr. West.
And Dr. West simply sent the letter on to me. The young man came into the institute building for an evening affair shortly after I received this letter, and I showed it to him. Oh, he was upset. He said that he had lied about me to his mother and broke down in tears. He got on the telephone and called his mother in Globe, close to a hundred miles from Tucson. His mother wanted to talk to me and said she was coming right down to Tucson that evening. I told her that wasn’t necessary, but she insisted on coming. She got on a bus and came to Tucson that same night and met me at the institute. Her son had confessed that he had lied to her about things I had said—and he certainly had. She shed tears and was there until very late. I sent for a cab, and she stayed with a friend. In Arizona the Mormons have friends in every town.
Did you continue to enjoy her friendship over the years?
No, but the interesting thing is that Spencer Kimball never mentioned this incident to me and was always very gracious in his attitude toward me. I continued to have contact with him when he was president of the church. I was honored to write and read the citation when he was awarded an honorary degree at the University of Utah in 1981. I think he was a man of genuine decency and compassion and very great integrity. Well, that’s the story, Jack.
I believe you learned a lot of Mormon folklore during those years in Arizona.
I learned a great deal in Arizona that I had not known before. In Mesa, for instance, I learned that one of the common trees in that area dropped some kind of edible stem and nut. It was well-known in church in those parts that this was the stuff that Moses and the children of Israel lived on for forty years in the wilderness. This was the manna that fell from heaven. If so, it was a rather boring diet.
[p.125] I also learned in Mesa that the devil smelled like a wet dog. Now, as a matter of fact, maybe the devil does smell like a wet dog, but the evidence that was given by those who held this view was not particularly persuasive. Now to give you another example of folk religion, I discovered that quite a few people believed that the Gulf of Mexico was made by the city of Enoch being taken up into heaven! Now I’d say that was a pretty good-sized city—as big as the Gulf of Mexico. When I pointed this out to a man who was arguing for this explanation, he simply said, “Well, look at the map. What else do you think could have created that gulf. Besides, they had big towns in those days.”
All in all, you and Natalie found life in Arizona most pleasant, didn’t you?
We made some lasting friends in Arizona—Beth and Jim Fillmore, Harry Rickel and his wife, and the stake president of the Maricopa Stake, Lorenzo Wright, and his sons. Arizona was a delightful place to live—especially because of the people. This is where we became close friends with Stewart Udall, Boyer Jarvis, and others I have already mentioned.
Now my work in the institute was very pleasant, too. I had close affiliation with the University of Arizona. The university gave full academic credit for my courses on the history of religion, comparative religion, and the philosophy of religion. On several occasions I substituted for people in the department of philosophy when they had to be out, and several people on the faculty of the University of Arizona attended my courses on comparative religion.
By this time the United States was fighting in World War II, casting a dark shadow over everyday life. How did it affect you and Natalie?
I had very strong feelings and so did she. I was of an age that qualified me to be in the service. When the draft came out—this was actually before Pearl Harbor—we were living in Mesa and I went through the medical examination. In the middle of it, when I was standing stark naked with many men of varying colors, I was suddenly jerked out of the line by one of the physicians, Dr. Kent. He knew that I had suffered from asthma severely, though I was more or less clear of it when I was there in Mesa. He said, “You’re not qualified.” They ran down my medical records and classified me as 4F—unqualified for military service because of my physical condition.
But it didn’t end there. What happened next?
During the next year when I was on leave and studying full-time at the University of Southern California, I undertook to find some kind of work in support of the war effort—both through the university and then at the Federal Building in Los Angeles. I also wrote to agencies in [p.126] Washington that advertised things you could do to support the war effort. But I had no success. So I turned to the ads in the papers in Los Angeles. The big thing down there, of course, was the manufacture of aircraft. There were several big outfits there, particularly the Douglas Aircraft Company and North American. It’s almost laughable the experiences that I had. I became quite disgusted. Douglas couldn’t take me because of the fact that I had asthma. North American wouldn’t take me either because they discovered I had injured my back.
You’ve had severe back trouble on and off throughout your life. Was it severe then?
Yes, ever since I lived in Montpelier, Idaho. This has been one of the chief pains of my life. North American’s physician said they couldn’t take me and I was out. He said, however, “You know, if you go out to the North American plant and apply there, they won’t pay any attention to your medical record.” So the very next morning I was out at the plant lined up with other people. The aircraft companies were putting out full-page ads in the newspapers saying that they needed workers. They were desperate for people and hiring on the spot. Well, when they sat down with me to discuss things after I had filled out the application forms, they said, “We don’t have anything that you can do.”
I said, “What do you mean you don’t have anything?”
“Well,” they said, “you’ve got too much education.”
I said, “What’s that got to do with it?”
“Well, we don’t have anything that you can do.”
I said, “Look, I can take a broom and sweep the floors in these factories. Things like that. I can do that as well as these other people you’re hiring.”
“No, no, no. We don’t have any place for a person like you.”
Well, this was disgusting to me, but I finally gave up on it.
Was that the end of it?
No, back in Tucson the next year—over a period of the next two years—I worked through the Surgeon General’s office of the Sixth Army headquartered at Fort Douglas in Salt Lake City to see if there was any possibility of my getting an army position even though I had asthma. They told me there might be some chance that their regulations would change and I could be accepted for a post in the army. But that never came off.
How about the navy?
I undertook to enlist in the navy, too, but they rudely rejected me. Well, I figured if I didn’t make it in one of those, I’d never make it in [p.127] the air force, so I gave it up. I did manage to do some things for the military in the form of counseling and meeting with groups at Davis-Monthan Field outside of Tucson and another air base to the north. There were a good many military people who came to the institute. Very often these men needed some counseling and somebody to talk to and so on, so I tried to make myself as useful as possible. But my whole point in mentioning this is that I was not in the service and felt that I should be. It created a real sense of guilt on my part. The war ended in Europe while we were still in Tucson. Later, in August 1945, of course, it came to an end in the Pacific with the atomic bomb.
How did your life in Tucson end? Those were eventful years in every sense for you and Natalie.
The University of Arizona offered me a position on its philosophy faculty during the last year that I was there. I had to tell them that I had already accepted a position at the University of Southern California and was going to leave in the middle of the year. As it turned out, I was also offered a position on the philosophy faculty at the University of Utah just about the same time after I had accepted the position at USC. I would rather have had the USC position, but if it hadn’t been offered to me I would have been happy to have taken either the Arizona or the Utah offer. Natalie liked Tucson very much. She hated to leave. I was not as attracted to life in Arizona as she was.
But it was time for you to move on—both from church employment and to your academic career.
Yes, I must confess that leaving church employment and settling into a great university lifted a great burden from me. I felt like a free man for the first time in years.