Matters of Conscience: Conversations With Sterling M. McMurrin – book review

Matters of Conscience: Conversations With Sterling M. McMurrin – book review

Matters of Conscience: Conversations With Sterling M. McMurrin

Sterling M. McMurrin was a well-known intellectual and professor at the University of Utah from the 1940’s to the 1980’s. He served as U.S. Commissioner of Education under President John F. Kennedy. In his work with the Aspen Institute of the Humanities, he came to know many of the pillars of the political and cultural establishment of the United States. Yet for all of his eminence in the secular world, McMurrin will probably be remembered for his writing and influence on the Mormon Church. He described himself as a “loyal heretic:” he openly expressed his disbelief in many fundamental doctrines of Mormonism. But he really never left Utah and was always sympathetic to the church when contacted for comment by the national media.

“Matters of Conscience: Conversations with Sterling M. McMurrin” is a transcript of interviews with the man, conducted over almost a decade by L. Jackson Newell (a former co-editor of “Dialogue” and also a professor at the University of Utah.) This book also serves as a sort of autobiography of McMurrin. In the interviews, it appears that McMurrin (perhaps unconsciously) modeled his style of spaking after that of the late U.S. President Harry S. Truman:-) We get the same pungent tone of “plain speaking”–he is usually tactful but seldom pulls his punches where candor is concerned. He cherished his Western roots; in his spare time he raised horses, wore string ties, and was very conservative in his personal life.

The most compelling chapters of the book are those that outline McMurrin’s encounters with LDS General Authorities. D. Michael Quinn has demonstrated that the LDS hierarchy can in some ways be thought of as a large, extended family. McMurrin was a grandson of a general authority and grew up knowing many of the others. Because of these personal relationships (and his lack of rancor), he was allowed to freely speak his mind. After one meeting with Elders Harold B. Lee and Joseph Fielding Smith, during which they discussed McMurrin’s dissenting opinions, Elder Smith told McMurrin, “in spite of your telling us of your disbeliefs and heresies, we want you to know that you have the Holy Ghost” (page 194).

An effort was apparently made in the mid-50’s to excommunicate McMurrin, but it was spiked by church president David O. McKay. The president told the professor that he would be the first witness in McMurrin’s defense at any church court. He also told McMurrin that the LDS ban on black males holding the priesthood (a major bone of contention with conservative church leaders) was a “practice”, not a doctrine, and would someday be changed. Ironically, this attempt to purge McMurrin became one of the church’s finest hours in the delicate matter of toleration of individual conscience.

McMurrin remembered having strong religious feelings in his childhood, but he dismissed them as “emotion.” He became in adulthood a convert to the great 20th century idea of naturalism, rather like Fawn Brodie. Unlike Brodie, however, he still saw great value in the church. There was an ambivalence about his religious stirrings; he wanted to believe, but he saw the prevaling secular philosophies of midcentury western culture as forbidding it. In a twist of fate, purely materialist systems (like Marxism) have now fallen into intellectual disrepute. One wonders how a young McMurrin would react to the changing zeitgeist if he were just starting out now.

There are at least a couple of ways of viewing McMurrin’s life: one is to consider him as an example of what BYU professor Louis Midgely calls “the acids of modernity”–that is, what can happen to a person’s religious faith when it is subjected to the relentless skepticism of modernism. The critic Midge Decter wrote a book in the 70’s titled “Liberal Parents, Radical Children.” Her point was that liberalism in one generation frequently leads to radicalism (or in the case of religion, unbelief) in the next. It is understandable that church leaders would fear that, after McMurrin, other heretics would appear that would be far less “loyal.”

On the other hand, Todd Compton writes of “non-hierarchical revelation.” Taking the example of the blacks and the priesthood, perhaps the Lord was using McMurrin’s dissent as a tool to remove encrustations of superstition and culturally-induced “practices” from the pure gospel of Christ. Eugene England has suggested that one reason blacks hadn’t received the priesthood by 1978 wasn’t that they were unworthy, but that *we* weren’t ready for them to have it because of our racism. In an interview with “Time” magazine at the time of the priesthood revelation, McMurrin said “the young people of the church wouldn’t stand for it (the ban) anymore.” Perhaps it was the function of McMurrin, Lowell L. Bennion, and others like them to alter the environment of the church in order to make change possible. In any event, “Matters of Conscience” is a very interesting history of one Mormon’s life during the turbulent 20th century.

R.W. Rasband

from the publisher:
For more than fifty years, Sterling M. McMurrin served as one of the preeminent intellectual voices of the LDS community. From his beginnings as an Institute of Religion instructor in Arizona to his position as U.S. Commissioner of Education in the Kennedy administration, and from a professor of philosophy at the University of Utah to U.S. Envoy to Iran, he showed by example how educational, religious, and government institutions can maintain high ideals.

In a series of candid, far-reaching discussions with his close friend, L. Jackson Newell, McMurrin reveals his ability to reconcile the competing demands of freedom, loyalty, and conscience. He responds to Newell’s probing questions with good humor, giving examples from his own life to illustrate points. He seems to have never lost faith, even in the 1960s era of escalating cynicism, that honesty and justice would prevail.

“This book is neither biography nor autobiography, though it has characteristics of both,” writes Professor Boyer Jarvis in the foreword. “In a spirit of repartee and friendship, Newell probes, challenges, and constantly draws McMurrin out as he tells the story of his life and reflects upon his wide-ranging ideas and experiences. Rich in insight and humor, this remarkable dialogue captures the sweep and depth of McMurrin’s thought as Newell engages him in discussing his approaches to philosophy, education, and religion.”

“Among the qualities that characterized McMurrin’s life and mind,” explains Newell in the preface, “perhaps the most notable is the freedom with which he has spoken his views on both the sacred and the profane. His intellectual integrity–coupled as it almost always is with his humane instincts and innate fairness–has simultaneously confounded and earned the respect of critics . . . Thus this former . . . lay leader in the Mormon church, U.S. Commissioner, and Distinguished Professor of Philosophy has been admired and vilified–and frequently envied–by others who have led or served in the [same] institutions.”

Sterling M. McMurrin was E. E. Ericksen Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and History Emeritus at the University of Utah until his death in 1996. He was formerly a professor of education, academic vice president, and dean of the graduate school at the University of Utah, a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University, a Ford Fellow in philosophy at Princeton, U.S. Envoy to Iran, and United States Commissioner of Education. He authored Education and Freedom; The Philosophical Foundations of Mormon Theology and its companion, The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion; Religion, Reason and Truth: Essays in the Philosophy of Religion; and Swiss Schools and Ours: Why Theirs Are Better; co-authored Contemporary Philosophy: A Book of Readings; A History of Philosophy; Matters of Conscience: Conversations with Sterling M. McMurrin on Philosophy, Education, and Religion; and Toward Understanding the New Testament; and contributed to The Truth, The Way, The Life, An Elementary Treatise on Theology: The Masterwork of B. H. Roberts.

L. Jackson Newell, professor of higher education and former dean of Liberal Education at the University of Utah, is currently president of Deep Springs College in California. He is a co-author of Creating Distinctiveness: Lessons from Uncommon Colleges and Universities; Matters of Conscience: Conversations with Sterling M. McMurrin on Philosophy, Education, and Religion; and A Study of Professors of Educational Administration: Problems and Prospects of an Applied Academic Field. He is a contributing author to Religion, Feminism, and Freedom of Conscience: A Mormon/Humanist Dialogue and The Wilderness of Faith: Essays on Contemporary Mormon Thought. He is the past co-editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, and his many honors include the Joseph Katz Award for distinguished leadership in American education and CASE Professor of the Year.