McMurrin Differed in Gentler Times
Saturday, February 22, 1997
McMurrin Differed in Gentler Times
BY PEGGY FLETCHER STACK
THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE
In the summer of 1952, the late Sterling McMurrin, an eminent philosopher and writer, met with two LDS apostles to defend his theological views. With complete candor, McMurrin laid out for Elders Joseph Fielding Smith and Harold B. Lee the depth and breadth of his disbelief.
There was no Adam, no Eve, no fall from grace. Jesus was not divine, LDS Church founder Joseph Smith did not see God and the Book of Mormon is not authentic history, McMurrin told the astonished Smith and Lee.
The apostles (both future church presidents) responded graciously, McMurrin recalled later. Smith, who would become church president in 1970, held out his hand and told McMurrin: ”In spite of your telling us of your disbeliefs and heresies, we want you to know that you have the Holy Ghost.”
This exchange is chronicled in the new book Matters of Conscience: Conversations with Sterling M. McMurrin, published by Signature Books of Salt Lake City.
McMurrin and L. Jackson Newell, former dean of liberal education at the University of Utah and a long-time friend, had 52 three-hour discussions over a period of eight years. The book was in production when McMurrin died in April 1996 at 82.
Matters of Conscience makes it clear that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints once treated its dissident members more like wayward sons than evil opponents. Church leaders viewed McMurrin as wrong-headed spiritually, but still a member of the same family.
McMurrin felt the same way. And he took offense at being cast as strictly a church critic.
”While I readily confess to being a heretic — one who doesn’t believe — I frankly resent being called an apostate — one who turns against the church,” he says in the book. ”I am critical of the church, but I’m for it, not against it.”
In today’s LDS Church, interactions between church leaders and critics tend to be more rancorous and less personal. In September 1993, six writers and thinkers were excommunicated or disfellowshipped for their criticisms or unorthodox theology. In subsequent months and years, several more were excommunicated, and the church continues to punish members who voice unacceptable opinions about the faith.
McMurrin lived in ”a period when the church was much smaller and people could have much more intimate associations with church leaders,” said Blake Ostler, a Salt Lake City attorney who has published widely in the philosophy of religion and a personal friend of McMurrin. ”Therefore the people who were asked to review his case were the very people who knew him personally.”
Today the ”only thing church leaders really know of people who have been excommunicated is what others have told them,” he said.
Tone also makes a difference, Ostler said. While McMurrin was critical, he never intended to do injury or disbelief. He always tried to put the church in a good light, he said.
”That differs from some of those disciplined recently,” Ostler said. ”Their tone is such that they do intend to spawn disbelief and criticism of the church.”
McMurrin never attacked a church leader personally. For example, he differed in almost every respect from Joseph Fielding Smith, a conservative leader who regularly condemned such concepts as evolution, yet there was much affection between the two.
At one point during the interviews when Smith’s name was mentioned, Newell noticed a tear running down McMurrin’s cheek.
”You’ll have to excuse me,” he said. ”Joseph Fielding Smith was very dear to me.”
Newell protested that the two had argued strenuously, and McMurrin continued: ”Yes, but he was perfectly honest in everything he said.”
A Life of Learning: McMurrin was born into one of Utah’s cultural and religious elite families in 1914. His paternal grandfather, Joseph McMurrin, was a Mormon general authority. His maternal grandfather, William Moss, was a prominent rancher and businessman in northern Utah. From the two sides of his family, McMurrin inherited a mix of devotion and practicality that stayed with him throughout his life.
As a young man McMurrin was interested in religion and philosophy. He earned a bachelor’s degree in history and political science in 1936 and a master’s in philosophy in 1937 from the University of Utah. For the next seven years, he taught in the church’s seminary and institute program. In 1939, McMurrin became the director of the LDS Institute of Religion across the street from the University of Arizona.
Realizing early on that his views were at odds with church leaders, McMurrin spent his summers working on a Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Southern California, which he received in 1946.
Throughout his career as a philosopher, university administrator and ultimately the U.S. Commissioner of Education, McMurrin explored the themes of personal freedom and human dignity as well as the history of philosophy.
But he never lost interest in Mormon ideas.
In 1957 the church was invited to present a lecture on the Mormon religion at a conference at Ohio State University. Lee, who became church president in 1972, asked McMurrin to represent the church. His lecture, which he repeated at the U. and church-owned Brigham Young University, was published as The Philosophical Foundations of the Mormon Religion.
Following the success of Philosophical Foundations, McMurrin expanded his thoughts into The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion, a book that has been continuously in print for 30 years.
Periodically through his life, various people complained to church authorities that McMurrin should be excommunicated from the LDS Church.
A little more than a year after the Smith/Lee discussion, McMurrin’s bishop said he might have to initiate disciplinary proceedings against the scholar. But he told McMurrin he ”couldn’t find anyone to act as a witness against him,” McMurrin said.
Later that week, McMurrin got a call from then church president David O. McKay. When the two met, according to McMurrin, McKay said: ”If they put you on trial for excommunication, I will be there as the first witness in your behalf.”
Among the issues the two discussed that day was the question of allowing men of African descent to be ordained to the Mormon priesthood. At the time, the church prohibited it and many members developed theories as to why God wanted this practice. McMurrin opposed the policy and, he says in the book, McKay also opposed it.
When they parted, McKay advised McMurrin to ”just think and believe as you please,” McMurrin recalled.
McMurrin never was excommunicated. Indeed, he was continually used by church leaders to defend and describe the church and its positions.
In the 1960s, for example, when the NAACP pressured the church on its civil rights positions, McMurrin became the church’s liaison. Apostles Nathan Eldon Tanner and Hugh B. Brown asked McMurrin to pen the church’s stance on civil rights to be read at the church’s semi-annual general conference in 1964. In it, McMurrin affirmed the church’s support of full civil rights for blacks and everyone else.
McMurrin’s commitment to the Mormon family and its moral — not doctrinal — teachings made him an exemplar for modern critics.
”The church needs to live or die on the quality of the moral life it can produce in its people, and there it looks very, very good,” McMurrin said.