Sometimes a Cigar is Just a Cigar

The Salt Lake Tribune ran a couple of articles about the opening of Leonard J. Arrington’s massive 50-box “diary” (really more of a scrapbook). You can read them here and here.

The first link contains the following quotation:

Susan Arrington Madsen said a general authority asked her to remove about 40 entries her father had made in his diary. Many of them referred to things Arrington had learned — or at least heard — about men who potentially could become church president.

For example, a now-deceased apostle used to smoke cigars earlier in his life when he was an inactive Mormon.

I was kind of stunned by that last line. We’re really missing a bet when we try to sweep something like this under the rug. Why is it a bad thing that an apostle used to smoke cigars? James Talmage did, and the world hasn’t ended. Wouldn’t allowing a story like that to circulate let the weakest among us realize that we all have our problems, and if a guy who used to smoke could become an apostle, then maybe we should go ahead and go to church, too? Have we learned nothing from the love and affection the Saints have for J. Golden Kimball even to this very day?

Instead of trying to censor this story, the Church ought to have a special article on it in The Ensign and trumpet it from the housetops.

[Update: An apostle later reviewed the passages the first GA wanted to redact and had no problem with them. So those passages were not actually censored. This post is about the, to me, inexplicable impulse of the first GA to hide what strikes me as a truly inspiring story.]


  1. The main thing I get from this is that I will never, never, never be the President of the Church.

  2. StillConfused says:

    Once members learn the truth about the leaders, they feel lied to and deceived. It is much better just to be honest from the beginning.

  3. It’s especially odd that they would object since it says the man in question was inactive at the time he smoked. Presumably since he went on to reactivate and become an apostle, he overcame the habit. Sounds rather faith-promoting to me.
    One of the things I loved about Hugh B Brown’s “An Abundant Life” is just how honest he was, sometimes brutally so, about the apostles and presidents he worked with; and how he shows them as just men with flaws and biases just like the rest of us. It’s such a change from the usual pictures of perfection we’re usually presented with.

  4. I was very young when I first learned the stories of Tommy Monson being an unholy terror in his Primary classes. These stories were always interpreted by my friends and I reminders that if present-day spiritual giants could have been so terrible when they were little, then maybe there is hope for all of us yet.

    Are there really people who think that the the prophets and apostles were and are sinless?

  5. I think the follow up is important though:

    Madsen said the church dropped the request after an LDS apostle perused the list of problematic entries. That same apostle told her last year that the church is not bothered by the full diary going public at USU this year, Madsen said.

    So the first request was by a non-apostle general authority…but was trumped by an apostle. Perhaps a middle manager got over enthusiastic?

  6. Interesting point, J. Should probably update the post to reflect that. (I was wondering how we got the cigar story if it had been truly suppressed.)

  7. Kevin, any realistic assessment of human nature tells us that for any one person who is strengthened by knowing that Apostle X once smoked cigars but cleaned up his life to the point where he was called to high office, there will be the vastly more numerous busybodies who will make nothing more of the story than “Har, har har! Apostle X used to smoke! What a bunch of hypocrites those Mormon leaders are!”

    And anyway, when did the Bloggernacle move from championing openness and accessibility to demanding that the church trumpet from the housetops the trivia that this or that person finds colorful?

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Yeah, I assumed people would actually read the linked item to get the rest of the story. The thing about the apostle was not ultmately suppressed, but I note that the newspaper article did not give any details, so for now it practically remains so. I guess you need to go to Logan if you want to learn more.

    Ardis, I personally am deeply moved by the many stories we have in our tradition of accepting people with smoking challenges. (Even if they’re not all true, I love those stories about church leaders going to Idaho farmers with some nasty habits and calling them as bishops, upon which they reform themselves and serve honorably.) For me personally, I would find the story about the apostle to be an uplifting one, a potential inspiration to many Saints who struggle with such issues. We have so many people who feel like unworthy crap because they don’t live up to our high standards in every particular. This isn’t just a colorful story, it has the potential to be a deeply inspiring one, one that could have a far greater effect in bringing people in the doors or to the waters of baptism or to accept callings far more that any amount of mere nagging discourse could do. I see the potential for a truly inspiring story here, and I’m kinda surprised that you, with your keen eye for such stories in the modern church, do not.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    A friend, without realizing I had already blogged about it, noticed the same line in the paper, and quite independently of me wrote the following observation:

    “I find it an encouraging story of hope. An inactive man who smokes cigars returns to the Church and becomes an Apostle! Now we have a story to encourage home teachers! Why would you want to hide that??!!!”

    So I wasn’t the only one to see the potential of a gem of a story there.

  10. Ardis, part of the reason many readers might react to this by wallowing in the alleged hypocrisy of Mormon leaders is that Mormon culture has tended to view these stories as scandalous rather than inspiring. If we start trumpeting these stories as faith-promoting rather than shameful, the culture of Mormonism will change and then the critics will either tend to shut the hell up, or will be ignored as harmless and silly if they don’t.

    As long as the Church insists on viewing the foibles of the leadership as problematic to faith, they will remain problematic to faith. As soon as the Church decides they aren’t, they won’t be. This problem is a problem of our own making, and it is within the leadership’s power to eradicate it.

  11. To put this a bit differently, I’m not sure “human nature” is the culprit here, as much as the “nature of late 20th century Mormon prudery.” And whether I’m right about this or not, it seems to me we could use incidents of such prudery as valuable teaching moments, wherein we explain the much-ignored and/or undervalued doctrine of repentance.

  12. Kevin, although you set your post in a positive, he-repented-and-that-is-so-inspiring frame, at the very same time you immediately leap to the label of “censorship.” Aaron calls it “prudery.” You go even further to say that it isn’t enough that the material be available, but that the church is wrong for not capitalizing on this personal trivia in the most public way possible. It’s that damning of the church on the slightest of excuses that I protest. I’m all for the openness of the record; I’m not so keen on slapping ugly labels on the church because one man — one OVERRULED man — had a different opinion.

  13. It is the nature of humans to read back present mores and standards into historical figures we admire. Antebellum American literature is full of this kind of thing in regard to biblical figures and the same is true for mid 20th century literature on the Founders. Then when we find out they valued some things less or differently than we do (Franklin the playboy, Jefferson the spendthrift, Joseph the polygamist), it may shock us. This potential shock value is a popular object of professional anti-Mormons (and professional commenters at the Trib, hardy har) as noted.

    I’m all for no purposeful sanitizing, but at the same time, devotional literature needs to focus. That means the sharp end of the evangelizing spear is not prepared to deal with cognitive dissonance when it comes along. We have historically done a bit of stonewalling as a solution. But maybe MMM and the JSPP show us moving another way.

    Who knows? Maybe Kevin Barney will be answering phones at the COB explanoline next year? Hehe.

  14. And just to bring these comments full-circle, it is important to recognize that Arrington’s influence had a lot to do with making the recent MMM book and JSPP possible.

  15. Please tell me some one is working on getting these Arrington diaries published. His “Adventures of a Mormon Historian” was remarkable, but I sure would love more.

  16. I find this discussion rather interesting. We have a discussion that is focused on the image of the church and/or the potential effect on members and anti-Mormons. What about the morality of this kind of thing? I recognize the decision was overruled, but we all know the church’s reputation of white washing history is prevalent. Every time this topic is brought up I hear the same arguments relating to the effects such an agenda has on members as if our mechanism for determining the morality of an action is based on the utility derived from it. But aren’t we, as Mormons, quite above moral relativism, after all, we condemn it all the time? Is it not wrong to suppress the truth? Is it okay to represent something as complete when you have withheld information that may change someone’s mind?

    I guess the reason something like this bothers me, especially if people’s personal safety is not involved, is that I think it wrong to misrepresent information. It is one thing to not tell someone something. It is quite another to present something as complete, or whole, when you have withheld information.

  17. Matt W.: While I don’t know about publishing the diaries, I know Greg Prince is writing a biography on Arrington. For the last decade or so he has been given full access to the diaries before they became available. I have no idea what the current status is, though.

  18. I understand that Greg Prince is also working on a bio on the late Elder Paul H. Dunn of the Seventy, is that true or?

  19. Kevin Barney says:

    I guess I was just stunned by the sensibility of the first, overruled, man to want to hide this factoid, presumably to protect the church, when it seems so obvious to me that the church doesn’t need this particular kind of protection and, to the contrary, it could use a lot more of this sort of thing so that people understand that the apostles are real human beings and repentance is a universal principle.

  20. jmb275, in one sense, I think you’re right. That is, there are arguably moral imperatives for full disclosure, independent of how this or that individual Mormon will respond to information, or how Mormons in general will respond to information. But in practice, applying this moral insight is tricky. There are an infinite number of historical “facts” one could choose to include in a historical narrative about a church leader, or any other historical subject. So one can’t meaningfully tell EVERYTHING. So you have to pick and choose what you’re going to tell.

  21. These kind of stories do so open up and humble my heart. I remember hearing of another General Authority more than a generation ago. Prior to showing up for a stake conference he asked the High Priests to prepare and serve a Sat. night spaghetti dinner at the local school for all the town drunks/drinkers. Held at a school so it would be seen as a “neutral” site. Then rehearsed to the guests his personal story of being a fast track lawyer in DC in his 20’s who had become dependent on drinking until he admitted he needed to humble himself and accept the power of God in his life. A year later three of the guests of the dinner were set apart as the elders quorum presidency.
    So not only did we have a cigar smoking apostle, but likely an AA reclaimed general authority. Yet, why is this not more well known? I do not know and I only have the story now as relayed by someone else who has since passed away.

  22. When I see excerpts that show that impulse to sanitize, I think: Heaven forbid that tithe-payers who volunteer hours a week actually have some clue as to the who the leadership of the church really is. What do church leaders think of me that they feel the need to keep me deluded about who they are? It’s not like people who stand accused of wrong-doing by church courts have the ability to redact the parts that they feel make them look bad. Why should the people who ultimately drive such processes?

  23. “Are there really people who think that the the prophets and apostles were and are sinless?”

    The Immaculate Conception no?

  24. The story of young Heber J Grant overcoming an alcohol dependency (began when his doctor suggested a beer a day to gain weight for a life insurance policy) and then championing the WofW because he knew how powerful addiction was from firsthand experience is far more meaningful to me than the handwriting/baseball/singing stories we always hear.

    We have the same issue with my grandfather, who would prefer to not share his history and seem the ever-faithful bishop and church leader. Yet his inactivity during WW2 and story of being called to the bishopric while drinking a beer on the porch and then changing his life and paying back-tithing to be sealed in the temple is far more powerful than the cover-up as well.

    I say go with the Alma the Younger model–instructive truth, teaching power through life experience.

  25. Anita- Do you have a reference for the Heber J Grant story? I would love to read it?