In our judgment, the ten most influential Mormons of the Twentieth Century.
What follows is an extraordinarily long collaborative post.
At my suggestion, several of BCC’s best, nerdiest historical minds have provided beefy paragraphs on the ten Mormons that most profoundly affected the Church as we know it today. The participants in this encyclopedic megapost include myself, Kevin Barney, J. Nelson-Seawright, J. Stapley, and Kris Wright. The figures profiled are arranged in more or less chronological order rather than order of magnitude or importance, and two of the ten posts are on multiple individuals whose collective influence were interrelated and interdependent. Enjoy!
James E. Talmage (J. Stapley)
Jesus the Christ is one of a few extra-canonical volumes to receive the endorsement of the First Presidency. Further, it has enjoyed a longer circulation among Latter-day Saint readers than any other volume in Church history (by scores of decades [J. now recognizes that this doesn’t make any sense]). James Talmage, a geologist, scientific academic and intellectual, worked for the various museums and universities in Utah. He is perhaps best remembered for his great works in theology. Before being called as an apostle, he authored Articles of Faith, which persisted (in edited form) in the “Missionary Library” until the 21st century. In the first two decades of the 20th century, the Joseph F. Smith Presidency, with the help of James Talmage (ordained in 1911), further systemized Mormon doctrine by extricating much of the nineteenth-century ideas that the modern Church finds so perplexing. This effort culminated in the authoring of Jesus the Christ. Further, when an individual attempted to blackmail the Church by publishing photographs of the Salt Lake Temple interior, Talmage suggested a prophylactic publication with an explication of the Temples function and authored the same (The House of the Lord). Talmage was also the chief editor for the 1902 and 1921 editions of the Pearl of Great Price (which remained unchanged until 1981) and served on the committee to edit the other various canon. Their furtive effort to modernize the text of the Book of Mormon was not successful, but he divided the Pearl of Great price into column and verse and helped annotate the various volumes. Talmage is also well known among scholars for his lectures and writings demonstrating that there was “death before the fall,” in contrast to the position taken by Elder Joseph Fielding Smith.
J. Reuben Clark (Kris Wright)
The life of J. Reuben Clark is one of curious contradictions. Although he did not attend high school, he became the valedictorian of his class at the University of Utah, one of the top-ranked students at Columbia Law School and had a distinguished career as law professor, and in government appointments including Ambassador to Mexico. He was a committed Mormon but also a secularist. Clark was a military enthusiast in his early years, but became a fierce anti-war spokesman. He advocated racist ideas, but became one who anticipated the ending the priesthood ban. He was a committed nationalist, but had a vision of the international church. He never served a mission or in local leadership callings, yet became a counselor in the First Presidency longer than anybody else. In 1933, at age sixty-two, he was called as Second Counselor to President Heber J. Grant. In an unusual move, he was called to this office while still a High Priest, and was not ordained as an Apostle until a year and a half later. He never served in the Quorum of the Twelve, spending the rest of his life as Counselor to three successive Presidents. As a member of the First Presidency, President Clark was one who both innovated and resisted change. He was a stable presence when the Church faced the prolonged illness of the Church President for an extended period. His legacy includes the centrally directed church Welfare Plan, the reorganization of church finances, a new relationship between church auxiliaries and priesthood leadership, the construction of multi-ward buildings and the establishment of the broadcast of General Conference as well as translation services during such events.
B. H. Roberts/Hugh Nibley (Brad)
There was some debate among participants here whether B. H. Roberts or Hugh Nibley exerted a greater influence on the twentieth-century Church. In recent a survey of LDS academics, Roberts was called Mormon History’s most important intellectual, and Leonard Arrington called him “the intellectual leader of the Mormon people in the era of Mormonism’s finest intellectual attainment.” He published the seven-volume History of the Church, serving as the Church’s historian for more than three decades before his death. He was an important figure, alongside James E. Talmage and others, in early efforts to formally systematize LDS teachings and doctrines after the period of freethinking, speculation, and sometimes public disagreement and controversy over doctrinal matters that characterized the Mormon intellectual landscape during the territorial period. Roberts published several landmark treatises on LDS thought, among them The Gospel: An Exposition of Its First Principles; The Truth, The Way, The Life (not published until the early 1990s); and Book of Mormon Difficulties: A Study, in which he (among other things) compared similarities between the Book of Mormon and Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews and conjectured about the possibility that the former was a product less of divinely guided translation from ancient records than of Joseph Smith’s prophetic and religious imagination. The questions raised, but not answered, by Roberts set the stage for the ascendancy of the last century’s second most important LDS intellectual: Hugh Nibley. Unapologetic apologist, unrelenting social critic (as many an LDS lawyer and businessman well knows), Nibley used his towering intellect (and total indifference to the possibility of ever receiving a Church calling to a position of ecclesiastical responsibility) to browbeat critics of Mormonism and especially of the Book of Mormon. Most importantly, Nibley addressed himself to the questions posed by Roberts, deploying a variety of disciplinary tools, from Ancient History to copious linguistic knowledge to structuralism to seek answers. Yet for Nibley, simply arguing for the books authenticity as a document of ancient origin, no matter how convincing, was less an end than a means—a means for getting the world to take seriously the content of the book’s message, what he saw as its impassioned warnings against the contemporary evils of greed and wealth, war and violence, and the relentless pursuit of worldly power (“The Book of Mormon,” he once wrote, “is holding up a mirror to our ugliness…). In this respect, he succeeded where Roberts failed—at getting the Church to start to take seriously the Book of Mormon as an object of critical study. But their overall impact was collaborative and synergistic. It is not likely that the task of popularizing serious Book of Mormon research would have found success—or even motivation—in today’s Church without the groundwork previously laid by Roberts’ lone voice in the wilderness.
David O. McKay (Kevin Barney)
Tall. Handsome. Robust. Clean shaven. That white shock of hair. That bearing. Those penetrating eyes. David O. McKay came right out of central casting—a prophet for the 20th century. He was a General Authority for 64 years; 17 of those in the First Presidency, and almost 19 as president of the Church, beginning in 1951. He struggled early with doubt and, as a missionary to England, homesickness. One day he noticed a stone arch with the inscription “What-E’er Thou Art, Act Well Thy Part,” which inspired him and became a personal mantra for the rest of his life. He loved reading good literature and chose teaching for his profession; accordingly, he had a deep concern for education (becoming the Church’s first Commissioner of Education in 1919) and was liberal-minded. Civic-minded as well, he had a strong humanitarian streak. He was the most widely travelled Church leader of his day, and by building temples and establishing stakes outside the United States he became a force in the creation of international Mormonism. David O. McKay was the bridge that brought the Saints into the modern world.
Fawn M. Brodie (Brad)
It is perhaps fitting that the one woman to make the cut did so in large part via a controversial and public act of leaving the fold. Fawn McKay Brodie, niece of Church president David O. McKay, attended graduate school at the University of Chicago, where she discarded the religious beliefs of her youth — an act she described as “exhilarating.” Determined to write the first academic, non-hagiographic biography of Joseph Smith, Jr., Brodie applied for the A. A. Knopf literary fellowship in 1943. Her selection for the fellowship made possible the research that informed No Man Knows My History. She even used her connection to President McKay to secure access to sensitive documents in the LDS archives, a fact that left her feeling “guilty as hell.” Eventually, her research ran afoul of McKay, and she voluntarily exiled herself from the Church archive. Brodie deployed the psychoanalytical theories of Sigmund Freud in her analysis of Smith, arguing, among other things, that his gradually emerging sense of himself as an authentic prophet never completely overshadowed his self-consciousness about the “artifice” by which he created the Book of Mormon. While her experimentation with psychobiography won her mixed reaction from academic circles, the response to NMKMH in Mormondom was as indignant as it was universal. The Deseret News wrote a review that praised Brodie’s literary abilities but reduced her unquestionably original work to standard anti-Mormon fair. Hugh Nibley wrote a scathing, over-zealous critique of Brodie entitled “No, Ma’am, That’s Not History.” As for the long term impact of writing a scholarly, taken-seriously, critical biography of Mormonism’s founder: in addition to serving as an important catalyst for the development of contemporary Mormon intellectual apologetics, Brodie’s work forced an entire generation of more devotionally-inclined Mormon historians to deal with the vexing and complicated questions that confront anyone doing serious academic research on the life of the prophet. Without No Man Knows My History, there would be no Rough Stone Rolling.
Harold B. Lee (JNS)
Born in 1899, Harold B. Lee entered church administration in 1930, when he was called as president of the Salt Lake Pioneer Stake. Lee’s experience managing welfare work in that stake during the early years of the Great Depression led to a subsequent calling as managing director of the church’s welfare program in 1936, a position which allowed Lee to manage the consolidation of the church’s 20th-century approach to helping its poor. In 1941, Lee was called as an Apostle. In that calling, Lee is best known for two sets of policy decisions. First, Lee was the force behind the revitalization of the Priesthood Correlation Committee. The Correlation Committee was established in 1908 as a means for central control of church curriculum and programs. However, some aspects of the overall church program retained substantial autonomy until Lee’s period on the Correlation Committee, when such autonomy was curtailed and the Committee instituted a more direct supervisory relationship between the central church and auxiliary leadership. In particular, prior to Lee’s tenure with the Correlation Committee, the Relief Society had substantial organizational autonomy, managing its own budget and preparing its own lesson manuals and other publications. The Correlation Committee, with Lee’s guidance, restructured these aspects of the Relief Society, integrating the Society’s finances into the broader church accounting system and assigning responsibility for Relief Society curriculum development to priesthood leaders and professionals in the employ of the central church bureaucracy. A second important policy legacy of Lee’s period as an Apostle was his maintenance of the church’s policy of prohibiting priesthood ordination and temple ordinances to black individuals. In 1969, all members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve other than President McKay (whose physical and mental health had deteriorated) and Harold B. Lee (who was away from Salt Lake City on assignment) voted to rescind the racial priesthood ban. When Lee returned from his assignment to learn of this vote, he insisted that the ban could only be reversed by revelation and demanded a new vote, in which the ban was unanimously upheld. Lee served as president of the church from July, 1972, until December, 1973. His brief administration was less historically eventful than his period as an Apostle had been.
Joseph Fielding Smith/Bruce R. McConkie (J. Stapley)
Perhaps no Mormon duo has been more caricatured than the father and son-in-law team of Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie. There is no question that their combined personalities and corpus wielded a tremendous influence on the 20th century Church. Joseph was one of several family members to ascend to the governing quorums of the Church. Influenced by contemporary Christian fundamentalists, Joseph systemized the pioneer doctrine of his father and infused it with absolutist vigor. This world view was not universally popular as exemplified in the clashes with other general authorities over Smith’s Young Earth Creationism. However, with previous experience as Church Historian and general wonkery, later General Authorities, including President McKay, frequently deferred questions of doctrine and scripture to him. Bruce R. McConkie married Joseph’s daughter, and highlighted his career in the Seventy by further systematizing his father-in-laws doctrinal positions and enforcing a rigid absolutist world-view. He published Mormon Doctrine, and encyclopedic volume, much to the consternation of the First Presidency and later a popular commentary on the New Testament. He edited Joseph Fielding’s teachings in a three volume set, Doctrines of Salvation, often silently tempering pioneer views that were not in harmony with McConkies twentieth-century perspective (for example teachings on women participating in healing rituals). Joseph Fielding became President of the Church in 1970 and served two years. Upon his death, McConkie was called to fill the resulting vacancy in the Quorum of the Twelve. As apostle, McConkie lead the committee and was responsible for much of the 1981 LDS edition of the English Scriptures (including the Bible Dictionary), which is used to this day. Both McConkie and Smith’s writings and thought (despite the early resistance) were adopted by the Church Education System and many in the general quorums of the Church as the standard. Their absolutism lingered well beyond their mortality and their doctrinal views are still lauded in many schools of Mormon thought.
Spencer W. Kimball (Kevin)
When Harold B. Lee became prophet, Spencer W. Kimball was next in line, but no one, including Spencer himself, thought we would ever see a Kimball presidency. Relatively young and vigorous, the ideological opposite of McKay, it was widely assumed that Lee would serve for the next 20 years. But as it happened he only served a year and a half, thrusting the diminutive Spencer into the presidency. Great things had been expected of Lee; Spencer seemed to lack the natural advantages possessed by his predecessor. But what he lacked in natural gifts he made up for with an overpowering work ethic. He turned what seemed to be weaknesses, such as his raspy voice resulting from throat cancer, into strengths. His call to the apostleshp in 1943 left him struggling with self-doubt, but a spiritual experience gave him the strength he needed to dive into the work. George Albert Smith assigned him to work with Native Americans, which became a lifelong passion. If you were a 12-year old boy when he came to visit your stake, chances are he would give you a silver dollar to start your missionary fund. His work counseling people for sexual transgressions led to a strong moralistic streak, which found expression in his book The Miracle of Forgiveness. Most famously, he wore out his knees in the temple seeking the 1978 revelation on priesthood. Ending the ban seems like such a no-brainer to us today that, unless you lived at that time and experienced the inertia that existed on this issue, you really cannot appreciate what a sea change this was and what it took for him to accomplish it. This was one of the most significant events in the history of the Church and required a spiritual strength and power that is hard to fathom today.
Ezra Taft Benson (JNS)
Perhaps the most politically active and influential member of the Mormon hierarchy since Brigham Young, Ezra Taft Benson was one of only two Mormon Apostles to ever simultaneously serve in the Quorum of the Twelve and in national political office; Reed Smoot, who was simultaneously a Senator and an Apostle during the early part of the 20th-century, was both less successful in reshaping many Mormons’ political beliefs and less influential in the development of Mormons’ religious identities than was Benson. Born on an Idaho farm in 1899, Benson’s church-administrative career began in 1939 when he was called as president of the Boise Idaho Stake. Shortly thereafter, Benson moved to Washington, D.C., to assume a leadership role in an interest group representing farmer cooperatives and was called as president of a new stake in the country’s capital. In 1943, he was called as an Apostle, and, in 1953, he was appointed as Secretary of Agriculture for the Eisenhower administration. Politically, Benson was substantially to the right in comparison with the American public. For example, he worked closely with the John Birch Society, an organization known for anti-communism and the promotion of conspiracy theories about U.S. domestic politics, sometimes implying that the LDS church endorsed the Society. In the 1960s, Benson was recruited as a segregationist presidential candidate with Strom Thurmond to be his running mate, and later as a running mate for George Wallace’s racially-charged third-party presidential campaign. The historical record suggests that Benson had expressed some interest in both of these possibilities, although he eventually declined Wallace’s more-credible invitation when church president David O. McKay refused to grant Benson a leave of absence for the campaign. Benson’s anti-communism and divisive views about race relations influenced his work as a church administrator. Throughout the 1960s, he made a series of General Conference speeches in which these positions, as well as other specific political views, were presented as logical consequences of a coherent and novel Mormon political theology in which individual freedom is placed at the center of all collective social and political processes, and in which the community and the state are seen as agents of the individual. Collective actors such as the state are only allowed to perform specific tasks which individuals have the power and moral standing to carry out on their own, but which individuals have delegated to the collective actor for reasons of efficiency or convenience. This libertarian view of freedom Benson characterized as the social and political counterpart of the more metaphysical principle of free agency. The speeches in which Benson developed this perspective generated a great deal of conflict among members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, and Benson for several years was assigned to preside over the church in Europe — an assignment that removed him from U.S. political discourse. Subsequently, he served as president of the church from 1985 until 1994. During this period, Benson emphasized several distinctive themes. By way of outreach toward the many Protestants that Benson had worked with on political issues, Benson encouraged the church to more centrally emphasize Jesus Christ in teaching and missionary work. In conjunction with this emphasis, he repeatedly encouraged church members to pay more attention to the Book of Mormon. Benson also spoke memorably regarding pride. During the later years of his presidency, when his mental capacity was in serious doubt, Benson’s health became an issue of public debate when his grandson, in the process of leaving the church, declared that Benson had not been leading the church for years.
Gordon B. Hinckley (Kris Wright)
On August 20, 1935, Heber J. Grant noted in his journal, “At 9:30 met Gordon B. Hinckley…who has been on a mission in Great Britain, and made suggestions regarding getting articles in the British Press. He was very successful while laboring in the British mission in getting a great deal of fine matter in the London and other papers and magazines.” This union of missionary work and communications had a great influence on his early service in the Church which eventually spanned seven decades as a church employee, administrator and General Authority. Following his appointment as the Executive Secretary of the Church Radio, Publicity and Missionary Literature Committee, he directed all church public communications for 20 years. For seven years, he managed the entire missionary program of the Church. Indeed, it is difficult to observe any part of the Church that he did not touch, as he worked in the areas of temples, missionary work, welfare services as well as members in the military service. His focus upon the power of communications played a large role in Church curriculum as well as the development of the temple film. He was called as a General Authority in the capacity of an Assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles on April 6, 1958 and then named as an apostle in 1961. During much of his time as an apostle, he shouldered large responsibilities in a solitary manner as he coped with the illness and aging of other leaders. After serving for 14 years as a counselor in three First Presidencies, he was ordained and set apart as the 15th President of the Church on Sunday, March 12, 1995. As prophet, President Hinckley will be remembered for an unprecedented program of vigorous temple expansion, including ones at historic church sites in Palmyra, Nauvoo and Winter Quarters as well as a unique relationship with the press. His focus on temple building and simplification of the temple ceremony has broadened access (and accessibility) to temple ordinances for saints worldwide with a thoroughness not dreamed of before his time. During his presidency, he also released “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” and “The Living Christ” documents, launched “Family Search” internet genealogy services, changed the Church’s logo, traveled the world to meet with Church members, built the Conference Centre and rehabilitated other Church historic sites. Recalling the poverty he had seen around the world, he began the Perpetual Education Fund. President Hinckley called for members to care for new converts and to rise above racial and religious bigotry. He will be remembered for his love of the past, his embrace of the future, his tremendous optimism, and capacity for work.