Politics and Religion Among Mormons in the 20th Century

W.V. Smith returns one more time to address us.

Well, that title was sufficiently broad that it will have suckered in some people who will be entirely disappointed by this.

I really just want to say something about the well known split between LDS leaders over politics in the first decades of the twentieth century and a less well known split over religion. Church leaders, in the drive for Utah statehood, felt that political conflict might lead to church conflicts. The politics of the period could be, and often was, a violent enterprise. Verbally and physically. Would that leak into church relationships? Their fears were justified to some degree. But permutations of these things could happen too.

I’m not talking polygamy conflicts here, which at least gradually fell out along national party lines after the dissolution of the Mormon-Gentile local system in Utah. Church leaders who saw that polygamy really had to go, or should be forgotten, tended to gravitate to the Republicans. Those who still held grudges over the Edmunds bills were often hard line Democrats. Of course it was more complex than this, but I will ignore that.

The interesting part (to me, here) about party loyalty among Mormons in the early 1900s, was the group dynamics it created. One might think that political bedfellows in the Mormon hierarchy might have similar sympathies with regard to doctrine.

Not so.

The B. H. Roberts, Charles W. Penrose political alliance (both fire-breathing Democrats) did not unite them in doctrine. Indeed, they took verbal potshots at each other in public and private over doctrinal matters while they simultaneously maintained a tight political ship.

The reason for their doctrinal parting of the ways was pretty simple.

A Penrose by any other name would smell as sweet.

Penrose was a Utah Mormon Cosmologist. Roberts was a Nauvoo Mormon Cosmologist (or at least he became one around 1903).

Neither man was in any way a shrinking violet. They were politically united in a way that so aggravated Wilford Woodruff/George Q. Cannon/Joseph F. Smith, etc. that they (Roberts and Penrose) and their pard Moses Thatcher nearly lost their church credentials over it. Thatcher actually did. It was not precisely that Roberts and Penrose were inflexible. Before the Woodruff manifesto, Penrose, as editor of the Deseret News had excoriated Saints who were suggesting that D&C 124:49 be used as justification to abandon polygamy. After the manifesto, he then employed the same rationale he had criticized. Roberts demonstrated that he could change his mind too. After being beaten bloody.

But Roberts’ Nauvoo doctrinal renaissance found little sympathy with Penrose, who was intensely loyal to the Brigham Young era theology (though not necessarily to Young’s ideas precisely) and had already established his own theological territory in the 1880s. Neither man gave an inch theologically.

Roberts felt Joseph Smith’s views (as he understood them) took precedence over Penrose’s interpretations of scripture. Penrose felt that surviving documents of Joseph’s speeches were suspect and conveyed erroneous ideas. And in an effort to discredit Roberts on this he was not above circulating little memos to apostles. Roberts engaged in his share of sarcasm by letter, and neither one missed a chance to get out in the stakes and preach their versions.

Penrose was at first junior to Roberts in the hierarchy.[1] But later Penrose was an apostle and then a member of the First Presidency. That made little difference to Roberts in what he said, but it did sometimes put a crimp in what he could write under a church banner. So he would write under his own banner occasionally. For his part, Penrose could disrespect with the best.

Yet they remained (somewhat quieter as years passed) political allies until Penrose died in 1925.

Today, Charles W. Penrose is probably best known for some of his poetry that survives in the current LDS hymnal. Roberts, well he gets honorable mention in the LDS blogs. And he is very much a kind of link between old Mormonism, and new Mormonism (though he doesn’t get much play in correlated materials-they play by Talmage rules). Carrying some elements from the beginnings into the 20th century, reluctantly parting with some of the baggage of its era of Utah isolationism.

Honorable Mention on the Blogs (also, Top Ramen hair)

Penrose’s and Roberts’ political leanings no longer make much sense in the 21st century. At least the reasons for their positions would have changed markedly.

But. Their theological/cosmological differences remain alive and well today. Twenty years ago, when my uncle was alive, he and my father would escort their sons to the general priesthood meeting in the Tabernacle on Temple Square. After that we nearly always ended up in the now defunct Snelgrove’s ice cream parlor. In at least some of those after conference discussions, I became Roberts, my cousin became Penrose for all intents. No fist-fights or yelling, just quiet disagreement on virtually the same issues that divided Roberts and Penrose. Sometimes the discussions got a little ad hominem. My dad and my uncle would join in, with my uncle saying Roberts was a drunkard and my dad saying Penrose (and Smoot for good measure) persecuted the little guy.

Charles William Penrose and Brigham Henry Roberts.[2] They live on. On earth and in heaven. If I was God, I would not let them in on the truth. It might be worth it.

[1] Roberts joined what was then referred to as “The First Council of the Seventy” in 1888. These were seven men without a quorum. After the death of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and the apostles dissolved the first quorum of seventy. Possibly because revelation suggests the quorum has similar authority to the Q12. The position of the First Council was always problematic in the hierarchy. It was effectively ended with the reestablishment of the first quorum when The First Council then became the Presidency of the Seventy.

[2] Both men cut their Mormon teeth in extended and remarkable missionary service. Both were British by birth. Part of the many riches Mormonism has mined in Arthur’s Isle.


  1. More than I ever knew about Penrose, other than the afore-mentioned hymnal references. Roberts has always been something of a favorite, but nice pairing and discussion of the two. The pictures also reminded me of my former days as a mustachioed fellow traveler. Interestingly enough, I shaved my mustache off after a couple of decades for the same reason I grew it in the first place: It made me look older.

  2. W. V. Smith says:

    Both could pass the current grooming standards at BYU. Maybe. I just noticed that fouled up something about Penrose. The News editor bit was out of order. But the rest is true. I meant to also say that the word “Council” referred to Seventy’s quorum presidencies from early Utah. So First Council was natural. The Seventy are fascinating so I’ll quit now before it gets out of hand.

  3. Great post, WVS, with interesting contrasts. It is hard to imagine church leaders today being vocal political opponents. The importance of some of Penrose’s positions regarding priesthood reform, I think, are under-appreciated.

  4. So, for all of us ignoramuses, where exactly can we read about their specific disagreements and how they played out?

  5. Susan W H says:

    Fascinating. Yes, you suckered me but I am happy you did because you wrote about my current favorite subject: Charles Penrose. I haven’t heard of him called a Cosmologist before. I am one of his many great-grandchildren and am writing a book that is part biography and part family history about the turbulent years of the 1880s. He did occasionally shave this mustache during those years, along with donning a wig and fake spectacles as part of his disguise. The deputies never did catch him.

    Thanks, I appreciate your post.

  6. Mark Brown says:

    Ah, Snelgrove’s after priesthood meeting!

    WVS, I probably saw you there. A Snelgrove’s caramel cashew sundae was the highlight of the week.

  7. Me, I went for the original Triple Thick chocolate malts. There is nothing on the planet that comes close as far as I can tell.

    Alex, most of them are in out of the way places, and you have to know who’s being talked about. Neither one mentioned the other’s name, usually. Letters in both men’s papers in CHL, a few reports in some church magazines like Liahona. Some leader only special priesthood meetings in the 1909 era, other places. Some of it is collected in the book (Funeral Sermons of JS) chapter 7 and its appendix. It may actually get finished in a year or two.

    Susan, that’s cool. Very interesting subject person. For an example of CWP’s cosmology, see Journal of Discourses 26:23-4 or thereabouts.

  8. Oh, I was worried this was another politics and religion post. I am so sick of those.

    “Penrose’s and Roberts’ political leanings no longer make much sense in the 21st century. At least the reasons for their positions would have changed markedly.”

    I am not so sure.

  9. Aaron R. says:

    I found this fascinating, thank you. I too would love to read more about these differences and hope that someone will publish something soon.

  10. Cynthia L. says:

    Top Ramen hair!! (sorry. trust me, the inanity of this comment says much more about me than about this very good post)

  11. Cynthia, that top ramen thing was Steve Evans. I liked it myself.

  12. dang fun stuff dude.

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