Matters of Conscience
Sterling M. McMurrin and L. Jackson Newell

L. Jackson Newell

[p. 375]With powerful whinnies, Bridger and Isis took their liberty as we unfastened their halters. In seconds they were racing across the high pasture toward their companions on Kolob Plateau. Bill and I watched in the morning light, then settled without words on a big log to savor our thoughts.

We each knew what the other was thinking: Sterling McMurrin and his brother Keith, Bill’s father, had died this past spring of 1996 within three weeks of each other. They had loved these horses and this place where they had come together every summer for decades. Sterling had even remarked not long before he died that if he were granted another life, he would choose to be a horse in southern Utah, wintering near St. George and summering on Kolob.

This scene captured the spirit of Sterling McMurrin. He was a man of intense loyalty to family and friends, he loved horses and Utah ranch country, and he exercised his freedom with uncommon delight. He was, of course, also a man of distinction—many distinctions.

In the larger world of affairs, he served his country as U.S. Commissioner of Education—a position from which he advocated racial integration of the public schools, broad elevation of academic standards, and more serious teacher preparation in both liberal and vocational education. He raised a stir, and he made a difference. At other times in his long career, McMurrin spent five months in Iran as an official envoy, represented his country at many international conferences on education and economic development, and served as a director of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Many of these opportunities—and others—grew out of lifelong friendships he forged with business, labor, and government leaders whom he taught as a bright young philosopher at the Aspen Institute in the 1950s and 1960s.

In his native Utah, McMurrin was known as a brilliant writer and teacher and a fearless exponent of reason and justice in human affairs. He said what he thought, and he thought deeply and often. He believed [p. 376]religious and educational leaders and their institutions have a special duty to set high ideals and to live by them every day—after all, these public institutions, more than any others, shape the values and inform the minds of each rising generation.

Sterling served on the faculty of the University of Utah for forty years, often in high academic offices, and he turned down its presidency more than once. More important, he was appointed E. E. Ericksen Distinguished Professor of Philosophy in 1964 and held that chair for nearly a quarter of a century. His memory was almost photographic, and he never lectured from notes—although he occasionally carried a fistful of blank pages to the podium to forestall criticism that he had not prepared properly. In his later years the university endowed two professorships and a lectureship in Sterling McMurrin’s honor.

McMurrin’s relationship with the LDS church was especially complex. He was born and reared in the faith, he taught in the seminary and institute system for a half-dozen years between earning his master’s degree and his doctorate, and he was widely recognized as the foremost authority on Mormon theology—which he described as “much stronger than our leaders make it appear.” Two of his early works are without peer: The Philosophical Foundations of Mormon Theology (1959) and The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion (1965). Sterling was Mormon, through and through.

McMurrin regarded himself, however, as a “good heretic,” which he defined as someone who loved the church but could not accept all of its claims. For Sterling, loving the church meant caring enough to speak out if he thought it was making a mistake and to speak in its defense if he thought it was being attacked unfairly. Few critics do both, but Sterling did.

He expected the church and its leaders to live up to their ideals, and he spoke and wrote courageously when he thought the institution failed morally, as it did until 1978 in withholding the priesthood from men of African descent. His was also a clear and strong voice against church intolerance (either official or rank-and-file) of free thought—including the use of excommunication and other sanctions intended to suppress the expression of creative thought or thoughtful criticism.

The moral leaders of every generation choose their duties—embrace their special challenges. The removal of racial barriers in religion and education was one of McMurrin’s major aims in life. And he and his peers achieved a measure of success. Sterling and others like him, however, whose consciences helped to carry the moral burden of the 1960s and 1970s in Utah and in the church, were sensitive to the [p. 377]unresolved manifestations of discrimination.

They knew that church policies and federal laws can change without changing people’s attitudes, and that it is within individual minds and hearts that the real problem must be solved. They were also aware that priesthood barriers to women are as offensive as those to African Americans. While they left this challenge for another generation, Sterling offered special encouragement and extended heartfelt support to women writers and leaders in the church. He was especially offended whenever these women were punished for expressing unpopular views.

Sterling McMurrin’s life and work revealed an uncanny capacity to reconcile the competing demands of duty and freedom, loyalty and principle, self and society. He not only reconciled these often conflicting but fundamentally complementary values, he also lived and expressed them with a flourish. In an era when tensions among these values are increasingly ducked by an escape into cynicism and alienation, or simply ignored by acceptance without question of institutional demands as a necessary good, Sterling McMurrin reminded us that there is another way. He lived with uncommon delight for eighty-two years—running free, while packing powerful messages about truth, and justice, and integrity. No wonder he was controversial. No wonder we loved him.