Jack Newell interviews Sterling McMurrin on topics such as Mormonism
Date: Sun, 3 Oct 1993 11:22:29 -0400 (EDT)
From: David Anderson
Subject: (SB) Newell interviews McMurrin
Jack: Welcome to a conversation with Sterling M. McMurrin. I am Jack Newell and it is my pleasure to be able to introduce him and engage in this conversation with him today. Sterling Moss McMurrin is the E.E. Erikson distinguished professor of history at the university of Utah, Emeritus, where he has also served as Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Letters, Academic Vice-President and Provost. His field is the Philosophy of History and the History of Philosophy. He served as United States Commissioner of Education under John F. Kennedy in the early 1960’s and Professor McMurrin is the author of many books on the philosophy of religion including, The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion which has been in press constantly since 1965 and The Philosophical Foundations of Mormon Theology since 1959. Both of these still available at the University of Utah Press. Sterling has long been what I would describe as a loving critic of the Mormon church, described as everything from a heretic to a long time Mormon, and indeed he is both.
Jack: Sterling, you have two very influential and admirable sets of grandparents. Joseph W. McMurrin was your grandfather, in the First Quorum of the Seventy with B.H. Roberts in the 1930’s, a very influential gentleman I am sure.
Your other grandfather, Moss was the founder of the Deseret Livestock Company. So you have in your veins people of influence in the world and influence in the spiritual realms. How did they influence your perspective on life as you were growing up?
Sterling: Well, I think both of my grandfathers had considerable influence on me. Especially my mother’s father who was the chief founder of the Deseret Livestock Company. That is because I was with him a great deal on cattle and sheep ranches right up to the time of his death when I was a college student. He was a man of very great stature in my opinion. My grandfather, Joseph W. McMurrin was a very powerful figure, back in the old days when the tabernacle used to ring with great oratory. Most of the people there these days have no idea of what happened in the old days. I remember a biographer of Brigham Young, for instance, Werner, who in the introduction to his book on Brigham Young, said that Brigham Young would get up in the tabernacle and “God bless” the people for some things and “God damn” them for others. Those were the good old days when going to conference meant something.
Jack: You took a different path than either one of your grandfathers. How did you end up becoming a professor and interested in things theological?
Sterling: You mean, how come I failed so miserably? I had a teacher who once said … (He was a great figure in the philosophy of religion), … he said, “I have a brother who always had the nerve to do the things that I wanted to do. And I was afraid. And he would go ahead and do them. And he ended up as a successful man in the world of affairs and I became a Professor of Christian theology and Christian ethics.” So if you can’t succeed in something more important, go in for teaching philosophy.
Jack: Now before you taught philosophy, you taught in the church’s institute and seminary system in the 1930’s. What did you teach and how did you feel about that at that point in your life?
Sterling: Well, I became a seminary teacher in 1937 and I taught classes mainly in Old Testament and New Testament. I liked the Old Testament better than the New Testament. To me it was far more interesting and I don’t think they let me teach the classes, as I recall, in church history and doctrine which they used to have in those days. Later on when I was the Director of the Institute at the University of Arizona, I taught some classes in mormon theology and then courses in the history of religion and comparative religion.
Jack: Did you feel comfortable in terms of teaching the church doctrine and church history at that point?
Sterling: O sure, sure. I feel comfortable now in teaching church doctrine. It is just that they don’t want me to teach it. I have been thrown out of more Sunday Sunday School classes than most of these people have attended. (Sterling seems to be speaking of his audience. They laugh.) I think that mormon doctrine is a fascinating subject. I have no objection to teaching it at all. Now there is much of it that I don’t believe. But there is a great deal in Platonism and Aristotelianism that I don’t believe, but I have made a living at teaching that stuff. (Audience laughs.) A kind of a living, you know.
Jack: I have heard you say on a number of occasions that Mormon theology has greater strengths than church leaders are even aware of.
Sterling: Well, I think that is true. In order to appreciate the real strengths in mormon theology, as well as it’s weaknesses, a person has to have some kind of comprehension, it seems to me, of the history of religion and theology and know a good deal about what has been going on in the world in those areas, in order to compare the Mormon theology with others. You mentioned a book of mine, The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion. That was written originally as lectures given at the University of Utah. Then the university press wanted to publish it as a book. Then one of my colleagues, Sidney Engleman, who no doubt, some of you would have known, a non-Mormon, a highly cultivated Mormon watcher, very critical of Mormonism in a sophisticated way said to me when he read the book, “You know, you have made Mormonism look a lot better than it really is.” I said, “That is exactly what I intended to do. The other writers make it look worse than it is.” (audience laughs) I mean that quite seriously. Mormon theology has strengths that virtually all, not all, but virtually all of the writers in the church seem to have been unaware of.
Jack: And what are these strengths?
Sterling: Well, at the present time of course, there is more attention given to them than there was 30 years ago when I did that book. The chief strength of Mormon theology is its opposition to absolutism in theology. And right to this day the general run of the accepted, not all Mormon writers, but the accepted Mormon writers … (There aren’t many accepted Mormon writers in this crowd here today, probably.) … but the accepted Mormon writers are involved in the traditional, absolute theology and they don’t seem to realize that what Joseph Smith did was make a break with that. They are busily engaged now, some of the officials of the Church who turn out books … (I sometimes wonder where some of them find time to do anything else) … they turn out so many of these books. These books are steeped with absolutism that Mormonism made a break with. That is the strength of Joseph Smith as a religious leader. If you examine what the history of religion has said, he had a few ideas of his own and a few of them, I think, are very good ideas, not all of them, but some of them.
Jack: Sure. Name some other strengths that you see in addition to the notion of a limited God.
Sterling: Well, a good deal that is related to that — that is that God is a being who is involved in world process, rather than being some kind of a static entity, that god is a temporal being. It is the temporal facet of the nature of God which distinguishes Mormonism. And I think that in some ways the materialistic facet of Mormonism. I mean the materialism in metaphysics, not ethics. A perfectly good word that is ruined by people using it if you like good automobiles or something like that. I should tell you, if I may, of an incident that occured years ago when I was doing work at Princeton University. This would have been in 1953. I called on Doug (typist’s note: I could not make out the last name), a British philospher at Princeton, a man of great stature in the field of philosophy and he had been a teacher at Stanford in earlier years of Obert Tanner whom some of you know very well. And they had become very good friends. And in the course of our conversation he said to me, “You know, it seems to me that Obert Tanner said that God had a body. No…”, he said “…that can’t be true … that couldn’t be true. It seems to me that Tanner said to me that you Mormons believe that God has a body like a human being. That can’t be true, surely.”
And I said, “Yes, that is what Tanner told you and that is what the Mormons believe.” And he slapped his hand down on the table and he says, “God damn, it is nice to find a religion that makes some sense.” (audience laughter) Now you understand that he didn’t say that he thought it was true. Just that it made some sense. He didn’t think it was true. But it is a strength of Mormonism to bring God down out of the emperiam, out of the clouds and try to, in some way or another, and make some way for God to be a living being.
This is the great thing in the Bible, you see, that distinguished the Biblical God from the typical deity of the ancient world, is that God is a living God. And this is stressed over and over again in the Bible. This, I think, is a real strength of mormon theology. The problem is that in their efforts to do this, too many of the Mormon writers get involved in a lot of ludicrous stuff so that they humanize God as if he is just somebody down the road who has been here longer than we have, knows a lot more than we know, but after all, he is one of us. Well, that is a form of blasphemy and that is what you get in a lot of Mormon writing.
Jack: Are there other strengths in the theology of Mormonism that you would like to point out at this time?
Sterling: Yes. If you regard this as a theological item. The Mormon emphasis on the freedom of the will. Or what Mormons call, this is using an old fashion terminology, what Mormons call, free agency. This is a very great strength in Mormonism. St. Augustine, the greatest of the theologicans, denied the freedom of the will in some of his writings, although in other of his writings he defended it. Martin Luther in his controversies with Erasmus, the Catholic humanist, argued against the freedom of the will. There are many arguments against the freedom of the will in John Calvin. If you take the three most important of the Christian theologicans, in the history of Christianity and this is a great strength in Mormonism, the emphasis on the freedom of the will. The problem is, Mormon writers have never contributed anything whatsoever to the solution of the problems that are associated with a belief in the free will, at the same time holding to a principle of universal causation that events which occur are caused to occur. My point is that you take a person like B. H. Roberts who laid great stress on the claim of freeedom of the will and it is a good thing he did. He made no contributions, as far as I know of, to the problem of the freedom of the will. It is not a simple problem. It is a very difficult problem to make a case for free will.
Jack: Let’s take these two terms we have been using: Mormon theology. What is theology?
Sterling: Well, theology is what is done to try to make sense out of what the people believe. I mean that quite seriously. People believe certain things. The early Christians believed that Christ was divine. And so the theologians had to make some kind of sense out of that. And what they did, eventually, in the 4th century was come up with the Nicean creed which employed Aristotelian metaphysics to make the case that Christ is divine as the Father is divine. There is an American philosopher of religion, I don’t think he is any too good. I kind of told him that once and he didn’t much like it. He was professor of philosophy at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. Henry Nelson Wyman. And Wyman in the … he wrote a book entitled (it is a wonderful title), The Wrestle of Religion with Truth. This has been going on for some time. And in the first page of that he said the theologian is like a cook. He takes all of the ingredients and puts them together in theological formula in such a way that the people like it. It is good. Now, he says, the philosopher of religion is like a dietician. He sniffs around to see what the theologian has put in the stew, whether the people liked it or not. Now that is rather crude. I have made it even cruder than he did. But I think it is a very good idea. The term theology is a derivative of two Greek words: theo and logo which simply means the word about god, or the study of god as it is sometimes put. Now Immanuel Kant said that the subject matter of theology is God, Freedom and Immortality. And that is usually what we think of in connection with theology, at least God and Immortality.
Philosophy is a different matter. It is an analytical pursuit to try to find out the meanings of things. And it, as you will know Jack, and others, the term philosophy in Greek means the love of wisdom.
Jack: Now theology is the task of trying to make sense of what the people believe, does Mormon theology go back to what Joseph taught?
Sterling: Yes, Yes. I think Mormonism makes a great mistake when it departs too far from the position of Joseph Smith. I say that because I think that Joseph Smith was a genuine revolutionary in religion. He didn’t accept the establish religion. Now Thomas Alexander at the BYU, brilliant historian, has done some excellent things on the early development of Mormon theology. And he has shown, and I think he is quite right, that in the beginning it was not radically different. As you go back into the Kirtland era, it is not radically different than much Christian theology. Sidney Rigdon had a lot to do with it. He was an accomplished Campbellite minister. The Campbellites were an offshoot of the baptists. He read a lot of baptist theology into Mormonism. Faith, repentance and baptism. That comes out of the baptist church largely through Sidney Rigdon, I think. But as time went on down to the time of the death of Joseph Smith you get the development of the more radical type of thing that showed up. For instance in the King Follett sermon which I think is a gross statement of ideas that can be worked at in a somewhat more refined way. You see, Joseph Smith said in the King Follett address, just a few months before he died, that we are co-equal with God. Well, the church rather wisely toned that down. It now reads, co-eternal. That is, the ego that was uncreated is co-eternal, not co-equal. That is probably what Joseph Smith had in mind.
I have a good deal of respect for Joseph Smith, but some of his ideas are extreme. He had rather extreme ideas, I think, on marriage. (laughter) It didn’t do Mormonism much good. I am not sure that it didn’t, to be frank with you. If it hadn’t have been for polygamy, I suspect ,… well, I for one wouldn’t have been here. Yes, I would. Yes, I would. I am 3/4 polygamist, but always by the first wife. (laughter) (Sterling laughs himself, turns to the audience and says) Now there are a lot of you who wouldn’t be here if you weren’t first wifers. (more laughter)
But my point is that the whole polygamy issue … I know that it is impossible for historians to tell what causes what, always … but the whole polygamist hassle helped to make Mormonism what it is. We can thank the Lord that it is gone, though it will never completely disappear. And there are plenty of people in this room who are kind of looking forward to polygamy in the hereafter. (laughter) It is hard to tell just exactly what the church teaches on that. But the church would never have been what it is today with[out] polygamy. We wouldn’t have had our great martyrs and so on. And polygamy probably lead to Joseph Smith’s assassination. And if I may hazard an historical observation. And I wouldn’t want to be completely misunderstood. I think it was a fortunate thing for the church historically that Joseph Smith died when he did. Because the church was beginning to fall apart. It seems like it was beginning to go to pieces and something needed to be done to pull things together. And Brigham Young is the one who pulled things together. I think Brigham Young is a very great man. I don’t agree with a lot of his stuff, but I think he was a man of very great stature. I don’t think Joseph Smith was a man of great stature. I think he was a charismatic, prophetic type. And I wouldn’t quite put him in Brigham Young’s class as a leader.
He was a bad judge of people. Rather bad, you know. Brigham Young was a good judge of people. He knew when to have them around and when to get rid of them, in more ways than one. (Laughter). But Joseph Smith, you know, John C. Bennett a famous apostate who caused him a bit of trouble. John C. Bennett wrote to Joseph Smith. He was a charlatan of the worse order and an adventurer. And if I am not mistaken about this, he wrote to Joseph Smith, told him he would like to join him and said, I’ll be your right hand man. And Joseph Smith wrote back and said he didn’t want him and said, God is my right hand man. Now that is really a piece of presumption. But later on he did business with John C. Bennett and it resulted in all kinds of trouble. Well, that is a little beside the point.
Jack: Well, one thing that you mentioned on theology. The two things that you mentioned as distinctive strengths of Mormon theology: the notion of a limited god and free-will. If you were writing the Theological Foundations of Religion today, instead of in 1965, would you abe able to say those things, or has our theology, in fact evolved to a point where the emphasis on what you regarded as the strengths is no longer there?
Sterling: I tell you Jack, I wouldn’t compromise what I put in those essays. But I would have a preface that made the point. As a matter of fact I am doing some essays on the philosophy of Mormonism and in the preface I have made the point that today it is very difficult to determine what is the official doctrine of the Mormon church. I think it is very difficult. Back when I was learning things about Mormonism, when James E. Talmage and B. H. Roberts and Orsen Whitney–(Here are people of great intellectual strengths and Talmage and Roberts died in 1933 as you will know.) — It was when I was a college student. Back in those days you could tell what the Mormon church believed and what it didn’t believe. But it wasn’t every Tom, Dick and Harry in the general authorities who were turning out books. And now a days, everyone is turning out these books and people think that, of course, they know what they are talking about, and so you have a hard time. I mean you have a hard time comparing some of Neal Maxwell’s writings with B. H. Roberts. A few years ago, Daniel Rector said to me … there was a small group that got me to talk with them. A little priesthood group outside of church. They didn’t invite me to meet them in church. A little elder’s quorum, but outside. And he came. And I talked about some of these things. The very things you have just named. And Daniel Rector, whom I met, a very bright young man, not so young now, he said, “You know, you are a Talmage / Roberts / Widstoe Mormon. The church doesn’t believe these things any more. They don’t go in for that kind of theology anymore.” And I thought. What is this kid trying to tell me. He said, “You have lost touch with reality.” So I got around and got in touch with reality and discovered he was absolutely right. He was absolutely right. Those men have been forgotten. And we now … I haven’t read many of these things lately, so I could be corrected. What the philosophers call as corrigible. Not incorrigible. My stuff is corrigible. But my impression now is that it would be very difficult to just take the things that are being put out now and determine just what it is that the beliefs of the Mormon church are now.
Jack: Why has that change occurred?
Sterling: Well, I think it has occurred because … well, I don’t know why it has occurred. I was going to say it has occurred partly because the general authorities are not now drawn so much from people like Roberts, Talmage and Widtsoe and Joseph Merrill and Orson F. Whitney. I don’t mean that they don’t draw from people of real stature. I have a very high regard for most, not all, but most of the general authorities of the church. I think they are people of great stature and integrity. But those we looked to, a few years ago, as leaders for the intellectual life of the church have betrayed us.
Jack: How has that happened?
Sterling: They have betrayed us. Oh, I don’t know. The leadership of the church just seems to have lost touch with reality. You take this situation down at the BYU. It is a deplorable, a deplorable situation. I have plenty of sympathy for the church on things like that. The church general authorities. They are there to preserve the faith. At least that is what they consider themselves to be there for. To be the preservers of the faith. It is difficult at times to tell just what sort of faith they are preserving, but that is the function. And some of these BYU teachers, unfortunately, have minds of their own. Some of us heard this young woman, Marti Bradley in this room before we started, a brilliant statement in defense of academic freedom. They have minds of their own and the church doesn’t know what to do with them. Just doesn’t know what to do with them. I think it is a serious question as to whether the church should have a university. A church that is committed to any extent to thought control shouldn’t have a university. Just shouldn’t have it. And this contention has gone on for a long time and it flairs up from time to time. I don’t know what they can do. Now when I say a university, I don’t say that it wouldn’t be wise for the church to support the people in education. I might just tell you that the commissioner of education when I worked for the church, Franklin L. West, some of you here knew him, Franklin West was a physicist and dean of the college in Logan. He became commissioner of education back in the 30’s and was until Wilkinson came on the scene. And Franklin L. West used to advise the people to have their young people go to the universities of their choice and especially in their own states. That was the official policy of the church. They weren’t of the opinion that they had to go to the BYU. Well, the church has been able to support an interest in religion through the Institutes. And very effectively, I think. And still have the students get an education in institutions where there is genuine freedom. The University of Utah, in my opinion, is in the intellectual sense, as free an institution as there is in the world. And I can give evidences for that. A student at the BYU should have the same opportunities.
Now the BYU officials, you know, and Wilkensen used to make a great deal of this, is to say that the BYU is a freer institution than the University of Utah. It was freer because they could take courses in Mormonism. At the University of Utah we didn’t have real intellectual freedom because we couldn’t give courses in Mormonism. Well, you know there are different ways of arguing all of this. But it is a travesty that an institution that talks about the glory of God is intelligence, and a man is saved no faster than he gains knowledge and that makes free agency and freedom of the will a foundation of the faith, to behave as they sometimes do behave. Not always. But right now, at the BYU.
Jack: You certainly weren’t at the BYU, but in the 1950’s local authorities of the church began proceedings to excommunicate you Sterling. What was that over? What were they angry about?
Sterling: I am not sure. They were just mad. No, it didn’t have anything to do with the BYU. I taught at the BYU the summer of 1977. And it was as pleasant an experience of teaching as I ever had in my life. It was a delightful experience. Now there were 2 spies assigned to both of my classes. But I knew that you see. So, if you know there are spies there, it adds to the fun. They were very bright. I gave them both “A”s. I really did. Well, they were both bright. They were smart. And they were good spies. They finally confessed near the end of the course. They were in both classes. I taught 2 classes. One on contemporary philosophical types and one on the history of the philosophy of religion in the occident. And they were very good students. They weren’t spies for the administration, I hasten to say. They were spies for Sidney B. Sperry who was a leading man there in religion. He wasn’t the head of the religion department. But he was a major figure. And they had done a good job. I got along very well, down there with everybody. Now the head of religion got fired, they told me, partly because of his having me there. But this was fortunate for him because he went out and made a lot of money. Became quite well to do.
Jack: Now let’s get back to … excommunication.
Sterling: Oh, I was just trying to avoid that. I heard this often, that I am excommunicated. It is nothing new. But it was fairly new back then, back in 1954. I began hearing in my ward that I was being excommunicated and so on, so I called on the bishop. The Bishop was an employee of the church, not one of the authorities, but rather high level civil servant of the church.
Jack: He was called to do right as he saw it.
Sterling: You bet your life. Anyway, I called on him and asked him what was going on. I was hearing these things. And he said to me, these are his exact words, in a very formal way, he said, “Sterling, it is my ecclesiastical duty to investigate you to determine whether you should be brought to trail for excommunication. Well, they were investigating me. A rather interesting thing. I had two sessions with him. Before the first session broke up he asked me if I would furnish him the names of people they could use as witnesses against me. You know, I didn’t think that is the way you were supposed to go about it. And I said, “Look you are supposed to get your own witnesses.” But he said, “We haven’t been able to find anybody.” This is a true story. And I said, “Now look. I have taught Sunday School classes, and this, and that and the other and surely you can find somebody.” And he said, “No, we haven’t been able to find anybody.” So I said, “Well, I will give you two names.” I had had two long sessions dealing with my heresies with Joseph Fielding Smith and Harold B. Lee, together. Joseph Fielding Smith was President of the Quorum of the Twelve and Harold B. Lee was next. And as you know they both became presidents of the church. But this was when President McKay was President, before Joseph Fielding. I said, “I can give you two names that would make excellent witnesses because they are fully conversant with all of my heresies. All of them. Well, maybe not all of them, but all of the basic ones.” President Smith said to me, “Now Brother McMurrin, we want you to know” (they were very nice to me, they were both very nice), he said, “… we want you to know that in this church a man is free to believe whatever he wants to believe just so he accepts certain of the fundamentals.” I thought, a good statement. Well, I said, “Now President Smith, the problem is it’s those fundamentals that I simply don’t believe.” So we took it from there. But I said to the Bishop, I said, “President Joseph Field Smith and Apostle Harold B. Lee.” He said, “You know we can’t use them.” Well, I said, “Why can’t you use them?” Well, I discovered later on why they couldn’t very well use them. Joseph Fielding instigated the thing in the first place.
Ah, I liked him much. I liked him very much. The thing I liked about Joseph Fielding Smith was he was honest and courageous. He said what he thought and he didn’t care whether anybody liked it or not. And I admired that in him. (tape turns over and for several seconds Sterling’s voice is too unclear for me to hear, but picking up what I can, it seems he is saying) … the commissioner of education told me once that … Joseph Fielding Smith … officer of the church board of education and they had the purse strings for the Institute and the BYU and so on and he told me that Joseph Fielding Smith more than any other person that he dealt with was ready to put money into education.
The man believed Mormonism. He really believed it. Some of them don’t believe it, you see. But he really believed it. He thought that it would come out on top, regardless of what goes on in these institutions, that mormonism will win. I admired him greatly.
Jack: Anyway, back to the bishop.
(some conversation back and forth which I will delete in the interest of brevity, but which can be heard on the tape)
Sterling: Should I tell the rest of this? Well, I haven’t told you everything that went before. I have to tell one other thing. I went down to conference, that was just before this happened, stake conference and Joseph Fielding was the speaker. He was the visitor. And he was very dramatic. Those of you that remember him. He said, “There are wolves among us, wolves among us. WOLVES, among us, I tell you, wolves among us. And a couple of people in my high priest’s quorum went up to talk to him afterwards and inadvertently mentioned my name. And he said, “Is that Sterling McMurrin you are talking about.” And they said, “Yes.” And he said, “He is the chief wolf I have been telling you about.”
I shouldn’t tell you all this. And he told them, “He is not to be permitted to come to your priesthood meetings and if he does come, he is not to be permitted to say anything. He is going to be excommunicated.” And that’s the way this got out in my ward.
I haven’t said, but I must tell you that I liked Joseph Fielding Smith very much and after he became president of the church we had some very pleasant communications. The day after, … shall I tell another one?
Sterling: Well, the day after he became President of the Church, Sister Jessie Evans Smith, who most of you will remember had a very distinctive voice, called me on the telephone. Natalie answered the telephone. It was about 10 o’clock at night. And she recognized her voice and she handed me the phone and she says, “It is President Smith’s wife, Jessie Evans Smith.” She said, “Sterling.” I said, “Sister Smith, well how is President Smith?” “Oh, he’s wonderful, He’s wonderful. Now that is what I am calling about. Joseph told me to call you and tell you that he doesn’t want you and Natalie to take us off of your list.”
Now I had never heard that expression before, but I kind of got the point of it. And I said, “Now Sister Smith, you tell President Smith that I will make a deal with him. As long as he keeps me on his list, I’ll keep him on my list.” Anyway, I could tell you a lot more in that direction but I shouldn’t take the time, Jack.
Jack: But in this other direction, you’re still in trouble with this bishop who says he’s going to press charges. (Typist’s note: laughter from audience as Jack keeps pressing Sterling to tell the story which Sterling keeps moving away from.) What happened?
Sterling: Well, I guess I will have to tell you that. A couple of days later, it may have been 3 or 4 days, President MacKay called me up. I was going for lunch with one of my colleges who was not a member. He called me on the telephone and he said, “Somebody has been calling who says he is David O MacKay. I guess it’s just a joke.”
And I thought, “This may not be such a joke.” And I had no sooner put up the phone … (He had said, “I gave him your home phone number.”) …. And I had no sooner put up the phone than … I shouldn’t tell these things … but President MacKay said, “I want to come and see you.” And I said, “President MacKay, you can’t come and see me. I’ll come and see you.” He said, “No sir, I’m coming to see you.” Well, he lived on South Temple in those days. Some of you will remember the old Union Building was still the Union Building. And I said to President McKay … I shouldn’t have even used this language, but I said, “Well now, President MacKay. What do you say, we meet on neutral ground.” He thought that was a good idea. So I said, “Well, I will meet you in the Union Building. Give me a little time to get there ahead of you.” I had a key to the Aurbach Room, a very beautiful room there that they usually had locked. And we had a long talk.
President McKay started by saying, “What is it that a man is not … ” (Sterling interrupts his own story to say to Jack), “These are his exact words.” “…What is it that a man is not allowed to believe? or be asked out of this church? Is it evolution?” Now nothing had been said in connection with my case about evolution, but he brought it up. (Jack murmurs with an understanding nod of the head to Sterling.) He said, “Is it evolution? I hope not, because I believe in evolution.” Then he went to two or three other things. He said, “Is it something else? I hope not, because I believe in that.”
I said, “Well, I will tell you something, President MacKay.” He was making *me* look so good. I was feeling guilty as the devil, you know. And I still have guilt feelings about this. I said, “President MacKay, I think I caused some trouble in my ward. The teacher was saying that we believe that the negroes…” (This was before the revelation of course.) “…we believe that the negroes are cursed because of the curse of Cain. That is why they can’t hold the preisthood.” And I just said, I told them that I didn’t want to argue the case, but I wanted them to know that I didn’t believe that. And President MacKay said, “Well, I’m glad you said that, because I don’t believe it either.” And he said, “That was never a doctrine of this church. It is not a doctrine of this church and it never will be a doctrine of this church.” He said, all it is, is we believe that there is scriptural precedent, these are his exact words “scriptural precedent”. I knew he was referring to the Pearl of Great Price item that the negroes should not now be given the priesthood. Now he said, “That is a practice and it is a practice that is going to be changed.” Now this was back in 1954. He said, “It is a practice that is going to be changed and it is not a doctrine of the church.” And I said, “Well, now President MacKay, couldn’t you make the statement that you just made to me in conference? Or put it on the front page of the Deseret News with the lines on it, you know, like they used to do sometimes with the statements from the First Presidency?” I said, “There are 1,000’s of people in the church that believe that is a doctrine of the church. Now couldn’t you make that statement in conference?” He sat there and with a kind of a benign smile you know, and I thought, there is such a thing as pushing the prophets a little too far. So I didn’t say anymore. And he was thoughtful. And he said, “Well, all I can do is say that that is not a doctrine of the church, that it is only a practice and that it is going to be changed.”
Well, we were sitting closer than you and I are and he reached over and he would grab me by the knee, you know (at this point Sterling moved to get closer to Jack. Jack responded and moved closer to Sterling. Sterling took his own hand and grabbed his own knee and tightened his fingers and said), I can still feel it. He had very strong hands. And on the matter of the trial. He didn’t mention trial. He said, “They can’t do this to you. They can not do this to you.” And I said, “Well, now President MacKay, you know more than I know about what they can do.” But I said, “It looks like that is what they are going to do.” “Well,” he said, “if they bring you up for excommunication from the church, I’ll be there as the first witness on your behalf.” “Well,” I said, “I couldn’t ask for a better witness.”
Well, anyway, I don’t know what happened about that, Jack, but I never heard anymore about the trial.
I would like, while we are talking about this occasion with President MacKay. He was most gracious and marvellous, but toward the end of our long conversation he said, “There’s just one piece of advice that I would like to give you. Just one piece of advice. It is the advice that my uncle …” (somebody or other and he let me know that he was the black sheep of the MacKay crowd). He said, “He came down to the station to see me off on my mission and when he shook hands with me he said, ‘David, I just have one piece of advice for you. You just think and believe as you please.'” And President MacKay said, “And that’s my advice to you.”
“Well, you know,” I said, “President MacKay, that is wonderful advice. Couldn’t you give that advice in conference?” And he kind of laughed. Anyway, I am using up too much time.
Jack: No. No. Sterling, you have known many of the church’s presidents in your lifetime and many apostles and I know you hold many of them in very high esteem and respect. There are 2 or 3 that I have sensed in our conversations over the years for whom you hold real affection. And I think David O. MacKay is one of those and I think Joseph Fielding Smith is another. Am I correct?
Sterling: That’s quite true. Quite true. And President Kimball. I think a marvelous human being. I had strong feelings also for President Lee. He was disappointed in me, to be frank with you. But he was very gracious in every way, right up until just before he died. After this session that I had, there was a 3rd session with Jsoeph Fielding Smith and Harold B. Lee. And they were both very gracious. And some people might suppose that they were a little on the mean side. I didn’t get called in. They just asked me if I would come in. That’s different than being called in, I think. And the first session, they wanted me to talk to them about the problems of what Harold B. Lee called the intellectuals of the church and Joseph Field Smith called the educated men of the church.
Jack: These are the “so-called” intellectuals.
Sterling. No! Not “the so-called” intellectuals. They were sincere. This is the real intellectuals, like we have here, not “the so-called one” that they have down at the BYU.” (Warm laughter from the audience again). Well, anyway, I completely revealed from start to …. and the second session was completely concentrated on my views, I completely revealed my heresies, which are as bad as anybody could have, I think. And yet, Joseph Fielding Smith when we got up and we shook hands, and I was quite moved by this, by what I felt was his generosity. First he had said, “My door is open to you every hour of the day, every day of the week, every week of the year, if you will come in and talk to me about the problems of the educated people of the church.” That was his attitude. And he said, “You know some things about that that we don’t know and we need to know about that.” I greatly admired him for this. And when we shook hands he said, “In spite of all of the heresies you have revealed to us, your disbeliefs, I want you to know that you have the Holy Ghost.” Now in the case of Harold B. Lee he walked out with me. I thought that was very generous of Joseph Fielding. In fact, far too generous.
Harold B. Lee walked out with me and he said, you will excuse me for telling you this, but this is what he said, he said, “Sterling you could do great things for this church and you could become a very dangerous man for this church.” And I said, “I don’t want to be dangerous to the church.” And so we shook hands and that was that.
Later, a friend of mind, George Boyd, who had been an institute director sent me a copy of correspondence. He asked me about it. I said, “I had never heard about it.” He said, “Well, every Institute in the church has got copies of it.” It was correspondence between President Smith and a man in Salt Lake. He had written to President Smith, said he had been a student of mine and so on and so on and he didn’t understand why I hadn’t been excommunicated from the church. And apparently, either this guy or somebody in President Smith’s office, there is always somebody who will leak this stuff, got a copy of this letter on official apostolic stationary from President Smith to him saying, “I have done everything I can do to get him excommunicated. I have failed. You will have to take it to a higher power.” (Sterling laughs.) I thought that was great. i just loved him for that.
Jack: Now dealing with these heresies that you have talked about in general terms, what’s the most outside possibility? Do you regard the universe as a friendly place for human beings?
Sterling: No, I don’t. No. I am somewhat pessimistic. I don’t think the universe is on our side. Now I have had teachers whom I greatly respect who can give you marvellous arguments from … coming in from various directions to show that humanity is at home in the universe. And after all, the universe has thrown us up and will destroy us. We are perfectly at home. We just aren’t going to be at home forever. But I regard the world as an unfriendly place. I don’t see how anyone can take into account the enormous amount of suffering that the human race endures and think in any other terms than that the world doesn’t give a damn for the human race.
Jack: On the whole would you say the world’s great religions have been an aid in ameliorating some of those …
Sterling: (Sterling interrupts Jack) Well, I think for the most part, that is what religion is about. Religion is an attempt to convince us, or to convince ourselves that the suffering and evil of the world can be sublimated and that ultimately God is in heaven and all is well. William James, you know, said, “In times like this, God has no business hanging around heaven.” And that is the way I feel about it. William James is my saint among philosophers. And of the great philosophers, he is the one that held views closest to Mormonism. He said, “God is down in all of the muck and dirt.” and these are his exact words. He’s not in heaven, he’s down in all of the muck and dirt of the universe, trying to clean it up. So that I have essentially a pessimistic view of the human condition. I don’t believe in it. Oh, incidentally, one of the great strengths of Mormonism. I am sorry that I failed to mention it. One of the truly great strengths of Mormonism is its abandonment of the idea of original sin. That is the worst idea that ever in fact entered the human mind. And it is a view that virtually all of the great Christian religions, not in any other religion, not in Judaism, but in Christianity. And this is one of the great strengths of Mormonism that it refuses to accept the idea of original sin. In original sin, you know, we sin because we are sinners. Now in Mormonism, you sin because you are over eight years old. You are sinful because you sin. You don’t sin because you are sinful. But the dominant view in Christianity has been and in the orthodox theology still is, human beings sin because they are by nature sinful. Not necessarily, by nature, but because they are sinful.
Jack: You have a pessimistic view towards the human condition.
Sterling: Oh yes.
Jack: Sceptical about religions. But frankly, Sterling, I don’t know anyone who I believe has a more fundamentally Christian attitude towards other people, who seems to enjoy life more in all of the highest senses, who is more spiritual at the core than you. In what do you anchor this verve for life, this respect for others?
Sterling: Well, that is a very gracious thing for you to say and it is a gross overstatement of course.
Jack: I have witnesses in the audience.
Sterling: You have? Well, I have my witnesses, too. All kind of people here know how bad I am. Well you know, the main thing that I can think of is, that I’m a Mormon. I mean that quite seriously. You see, one of the really good things about Mormonism is that it brings happiness to people. In fact, I think that is the best thing about Mormonism. It brings a sense of well-being and happiness and desire to do things, and so on. And I think that has had that kind of effect on me and certainly now on millions of others. I realize that one might find the same thing in other religions. People say to me, well, why don’t you quit the church. I have people saying this all of the time. Some of you are probably wondering why I don’t quit the church. Well, I don’t see much point in quitting the church. I don’t know of any better church. I know of churches where there is more freedom of thought, as in the case of the Unitarians and I like the Unitarians and I have some association with Unitarianism. But I don’t know of any better church than Mormonism. I have no inclination to turn away from, to turn my back on Mormonism. Now, any day now, the church might decide to dispense with me, and I will say very frankly and very honestly, I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t. I really don’t. It’s just that simple. And if I were called in for ex… sometimes they say, “What would you do if you were called in to be excommunicated?” Well, I can tell you one thing for sure. I wouldn’t miss the trial like some of my friends have, who don’t bother to go to the trial. I wouldn’t miss it on a bet. Now, I would want a witness there, but not a witness on my behalf. Now if President McKay had shown up, I wouldn’t have objected to anything he said. But I wouldn’t want a witness there on my behalf. But I would want a witness, somebody else who could tell what happened there. I would want somebody to see what happened. But I wouldn’t try to defend myself at all in an excommunication trial. Because I don’t have any defense. I would have to say, “Now look, you are the people who are sort of on trial. You have got to decide whether you want guys like me in the church or not.” And there are good reasons for not having people like me in the church, and there may be, for all I know, there may be some good reasons for having people like me in the church. When I was a young man and started teaching seminary for the church there were liberally minded seminary teachers, you know. And we thought we could make a contribution to the church. We really did. Well, I don’t think that any longer. The church belongs to the true believers who are 100% tithe payers and the general authorities. I used to think the church belongs to all of us. That was back in my youthful idealistic days, you see. I don’t believe that any longer. I seriously don’t believe that any longer. And if they decide to get rid of people like me, which I am well aware would include a lot of people in this audience, I would think they would be perfectly within their rights.
Jack: Now seriously …
Sterling interrupts: I would make no defense at all.
Jack: When did the young idealistic Sterling that you describe begin to evolve away from that view?
Sterling: Well, I am not sure, but I can think of a few things. During the 3rd year that I was teaching for the church seminary in Mountpelier, Idaho and the commissioner of education had written to me and asked if I would write a paper on the philosophy of religion. He didn’t say Mormonism. That would be acceptable in a graduate philosophy seminar. So I wrote such a paper and it was an argument for the Mormon conception of God in connection with moral philosophy. A non-absolutistic god. And the Commissioner liked it and the people he worked with, liked it and they published it in a magazine which they had called Weekday Religious Education, that the church published and sent out to all of it’s teachers of religion at BYU and the seminaries and institutes and so on. It was a very nice thing. It had a lot of very nice things in it. And so they published it in that. And one of the apostles took it to President Grant. Now I have this from Dr. West, the Commissioner himself. President Grant called him in and put my article in front of him and he said, “I have given this article to 7 lawyers, 7 lawyers, and everyone of them agrees that this is nothing but a lot of damn tommyrot.” That was his language. “It is nothing but a lot of damn tommyrot. Now this man is to be fired and we do away with this magazine.” And well, he did away with the magazine. I have a fine record on doing away with magazines. (Warm laughter of audience.) That happened way back in the early 1940’s. Well, they didn’t want to fire me. They were nice. My bosses, Lynn Bennion was my immediate boss. They didn’t want to fire me, so they sent me down to Arizona. I once was giving a talk to a group in the Lion House, back in the 60’s and President Kimball–, he hadn’t become President yet–and there were several general authorities there. It was a banquet. It is not clear to me how I got invited to be the speaker with all of these general authorities, but you know President Kimball came from Arizona and we now have a pope from Poland. And I said to President Kimball, you know, going to Arizona for an apostle was like going to Poland for a pope. He was the first apostle from outside of Utah. President Benson was from Idaho, but he came a few minutes later. President Kimball thought that was a good joke. Can I tell a joke on the pope, since he is in our midst? This kid came home all bloodied up and his dad said, “What is the matter with you?” Well, he said, “The Amalie kids down the street beat me up.” And his dad said, “Well, why did they do that?” “Well,” he said, “I said some dirty things about the pope.” And his dad said, “Well, surely you knew that the Amalie kids were Catholics?” And he said, “Yeah, but I didn’t know the damn pope was a Catholic.” (Warm laughter again.)
Well, to finish this story, they sent me to Arizona. And I had been there in the seminary at Mesa. I had the college work at Tempe and the seminary at Mesa. I had been there about 6 weeks and some kid with a stern look on his face, young man came in and said, “President Grant is outside in his car and he wants to speak to you.” And I thought, “My Lord, the President of the Church has taken the time out to trace me clear down to Arizona.” So I went out and he was in the car and he apologized for not being able to get out. He was having trouble with his legs, sciatica or something. He wondered if I would get in the car and talk and we just had a wonderful time. I’m pretty sure he had forgotten that, had forgotten that I was the guy that he had told them to fire. But when he died, I was in Tucson, when he died I gave the eulogy at the big stake affair that they had in his memory. I liked President Grant very much. I didn’t blame him for telling them to fire me. I think I would have done the same thing. It wasn’t the best article in the world. Anyway. I love the church, you know, and they leave me alone. I get along famously with the church. There are several of the general authorities, if I run into them at some concert or something, they speak to me and I hold that any general authority who will speak to me in public has real prophetic powers. I like them. I like them. Sure, there are some that won’t speak to me in public.
Jack: There is a lot of talk right now about threats to the church, and as you know, Elder Packer gave a speech in May suggesting that the chief threats to the church on the so-called intellectuals, the homosexuals and the feminists. What would you say if you were to say what are the chief threats to the welfare of the LDS church in the future are?
Sterling: Oh, I thought you were going to ask me to comment on Elder Packer.
Jack: Oh, I wouldn’t restrain you from doing that.
Sterling: I was kind of looking forward to the opportunity. Well, I will just make a very short statement. I think he is a total disaster to the LDS church. Now I think, and I mean this very seriously, I think the chief threat to the church, what you might call its intellectual and moral integrity and so on is that *this* sort of thing goes on and they don’t like it. Now I think *that* is the chief threat.
Now I asked that young man that was the head of Sunstone, what’s his name? I asked him, “Do the general authorities come to any of these meetings?” His father was one of the general authorities and I think he came. I said they ought to be here and see what the people are thinking, instead of sitting up there condemning the people who come here and telling BYU professors to stay away, and so on and so on. “No,” he said, “they don’t come. But they have their spies here.” And I suppose they do. Now I don’t object to them having their spies here. I think it is a good thing if the general authorities of the church have people coming to every one of these sections if they will report back honestly as to the attitudes and thoughts of the people. Because they are out of touch. They are out of touch with the people. They go to the stakes and the wards and people fawn over them and want to touch the hem of their garments and so on. Not their *garments*. (laughter) I am mixing up my biblical language with my Mormon language. And they are objects of adulation and everything. That’s alright. But you see, they have no … you take people like Dallin Oaks and Neal Maxwell. Dallin Oaks and Neal Maxwell know better than to do some of the things they do in condemning the people in the …. (typists note: couldn’t understand the word)–as a kind of a hatchet job as Dallin functioned with respect to Linda Newell and her colleague on the book Emma Smith. They know better than that. I mean, they came out of universities. And what is it that enables people who have good ideas and right thoughts to get taken over by that kind of a position, so they get swallowed up in that authoritarian and dogmatic stance that so many of them assume? That is the great threat to the church. The very fact that Sunstone exists, and I think it is a wonderful thing–these Sunstone affairs–the very fact that it exists shows the weakness in the church, that people can’t go to church and say what they think. They have to get out somewhere else to say what they think. For a long time there were these so-called church history groups meeting. And I guess there still are. They were all over the church because people wanted to go somewhere where they could say what they thought and communicate with others honestly. I am going to have to tell you a little story.
The church history group when my wife and I came to Utah to live in 1948, we were taken into a church history group which had the governor in it, and Obert Tanner, and Lynn Bennion and Lee Career and Scott Matheson, the governor’s father, the older Scott Matheson who was the U.S. district attorney. Now I will never forget at the end of the year, we didn’t meet in the summer, they were talking about what a wonderful year we had had. And Scott Matheson said, “This has been a wonderful year. This has been the most faith destroying year we have had.” Well, I shouldn’t tell all of these things, should I.
Jack: Our time is up and Sterling, I would like to thank you very much for this opportunity to chat.