Living Theology: Lowell L. Bennion

Where to start with Lowell Bennion, a man whose virtues almost defy enumeration? Best, perhaps, to follow his own example and cut to “the weightier matters.” [1] Although he was a theologian, teaching thousands of students in his decades as director of the Salt Lake City Institute that religion should involve the mind and the spirit (a message distilled into his classic book Religion and the Pursuit of Truth), Bennion’s greatest theological impact came from how he lived his life, inspired by these favorite words from Micah: “what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”

In one of his last essays, “The Indispensable Central Role of Love,” Bennion draws together passages from the Hebrew prophets showing that God hates the externalities of religious ritual if the people performing them do not also care lovingly for the poor, the lonely, the stranger, the widow. Updating this prophetic language to present-day Mormonism, he writes:

I hate your baptisms and sacrament service. I will not hear your prayers and songs anymore. Amen to your priesthood. Be honest in your dealings, be merciful to the poor and the afflicted, be understanding of the needs of others. Then my spirit will be with you and you will know me. [2]

Bennion understood, with Paul, that loving other people fulfills the only Law that God cares about. Fail there, and it will not matter how hard you worked as a bishop, how diligently you did your visiting teaching, or with how little complaint you cleaned up unspeakable messes in the nursery. The command to “remember the poor” in Doctrine and Covenants 42 remains very much in effect, and Bennion never forgot that, but it’s not enough to bring a meal or weed a yard: as important as those things are, only love matters in the end.

Summing up how Bennion put this prophetic counsel into practice, his biographer Mary Lythgoe Bradford writes:

Lowell maintained a compassionate, people-centered stance. He could speak to people at all walks of life, to rank and file, “ordinary” people as well as highly educated “intellectuals.” In fact, he avoided such terms as “ordinary” and “intellectual.” He emphasized faith by study and experience; he shied away from speculation and fantasy, declining to elaborate the unknown in favor of “the things that matter most.” What mattered most to Lowell was the service he could perform for others, whether aiding a student in his thinking, strengthening a seeker in his faith, or painting a widow’s house. [3]

Bennion wasn’t a solo saint, though: he had a knack for getting other people involved. While at the Institute he encouraged regular service projects, and the co-ed organization Lambda Delta Sigma soon emerged as a vehicle for these. Later in life Bennion ran Salt Lake’s Community Services Council, bringing people from throughout the city together in service for others. And he founded the Teton Valley Boys’ Ranch as a way of getting young men started on this path of love and service. He understood that Zion only comes about when all people, together, are “partakers of the heavenly gift.” [4]

Bennion’s kind of being together was up close and personal. His was a tactile theology of community:

Touch. What you can’t do with your hands. You know, newborn babies have to feel their mothers and their fathers. They have to have that body contact, that warmth, that closeness, nearness. … I work with boys in the summertime. How they love to have you put your arm around them, pat them on the back, push them on their shoulders. Touch, touch, touch. We have overdone individualism. We’ve neglected the social aspect of man. Men [and women] belong to one another. We need each other. We need to feel of each other through sensory experience. [5]

This need to be in touch with others went beyond the physical:

I have a few friends that I am completely open and completely frank with, and they understand me and accept me and forgive me. We talk to each other, we are loyal to each other, we accept each other for what we are. We feel creative together when we are together. We stimulate each other’s minds. Spirit touches spirit. Build good friendships; don’t neglect them. They have to be cultivated like a garden, or they are lost. But friendship is a wonderful dimension of life. [6]

Emma Lou Thayne sums it up: “In touch. That’s what Lowell’s life was. A lifetime of being in touch, always in plurals: across faiths, cultures, races, ages, disciplines, languages, circumstances.” [7]

Lowell Bennion taught, by precept and by example, a Christian theology of loving the people around us, of doing whatever kindnesses we can, and simplifying our lives to make room for these most important things. His mouth spoke wisdom, the law of God was in his heart, and his footsteps will never slip. Consider his private decalogue as a guideline for getting these essentials right:

Learn to like what doesn’t cost much.
Learn to like reading, conversation, music.
Learn to like plain food, plain service, plain cooking.
Learn to like fields, trees, brooks, hiking, rowing, climbing hills.
Learn to like people, even though some of them may be different…different from you.
Learn to like to work and enjoy the satisfaction doing your job as well as it can be done.
Learn to like the song of birds, the companionship of dogs.
Learn to like gardening, puttering around the house, and fixing things.
Learn to like the sunrise and sunset, the beating of rain on the roof and windows, and the gentle fall of snow on a winter day.
Learn to keep your wants simple and refuse to be controlled by the likes and dislikes of others. [8]

Forget the warlike Captain Moroni: the powers of hell would be much more likely to shake if all people were like Lowell Bennion. [9]

MLP

MLP

Mormon Lectionary Project

Lowell L. Bennion, teacher and humanitarian, 1996

Psalm 37:31-32 (ASB Psalter); Micah 6:6-8; John 13:34-35; Romans 13:8-10; 4 Nephi 1:1-3D&C 42:30-36

The Collect: Most loving Father, whose eye never strays from the poor and afflicted among your people: grant that we, filled by your Spirit with Jesus’ undying love for all your children, might follow the example of your servant Lowell Bennion by giving ourselves in love and service to those around us, that through this love we might become one people as you are one God. Amen.

For the music, here are two selections that capture Bennion’s way of life. The first is Thomas Tallis’s “If Ye Love Me” and “A New Commandment,” performed by the Robert Shaw Singers:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yxfsAEqsebo]

And the second is Anton Bruckner’s glorious setting of today’s verses from Psalm 37, “Os Justi Meditabitur,” performed by the Monteverdi Choir:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ov-OAmpcRfw]

Notes

[1] See Lowell L. Bennion, “The Weightier Matters,” in The Best of Lowell Bennion: Selected Writings, 1928-1988, ed. Eugene England (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1988), 3-5.

[2] Lowell L. Bennion, How Can I Help? (Murray, UT: Aspen Books, 1996), 32.

[3] Mary Lythgoe Bradford, Lowell L. Bennion: Teacher, Counselor, Humanitarian (Salt Lake City: Dialogue Foundation, 1995), 345-46.

[4] Just read Bradford’s biography, already.

[5] Lowell L. Bennion, “The Things That Matter Most,” in England, 33-34. Note this important caveat: “You have to be careful with this touch business; use a little discretion—with students.”

[6] Ibid., 35-36.

[7] In the foreword to How Can I Help?

[8] England, xxiii. George Handley and Kristine Haglund have written a series of marvelous meditations on these; see the first post here and click through to the rest from there.

[9] See Alma 48:17.

Comments

  1. Gene England’s tribute to Lowell Bennion includes this classic reminder: “At his funeral last March, President Gordon B. Hinckley, his neighbor for fifty years, mused that Lowell had never had a car as nice as any in the parking lot that morning.”

  2. Thank you so much for this commemoration.

  3. Thank you. Oh! thank you!

  4. I love these tributes!

    I have read several tributes and in memoriams about Lowell Bennion, but I have never actually read anything by him. Does anyone have a recommendation on where to begin if I were interested in digging into his books or essays? Or would the best starting point be the Bradford biography?

  5. The Bradford biography is excellent, but if you wanted to read his writing, the collection edited by Eugene England is a good place to start. Religion and the Pursuit of Truth is also well worth your time. I believe that both are out of print, but you should be able to find used copies.

  6. Left Field gave me a copy of Bennion’s “How Can I Help?” as a Christmas gift the first time we met in person, Christmas Eve, 1996. It’s one of the most romantic gifts I’ve ever received.

  7. Thank you, I have read much of Eugene England and very little about Lowell Bennion. I am inspired already. From this post alone, this was the adult church I thought I would grow up into. I’ve often wondered now if I was just a dreamer. I may have been but I wasn’t alone. Thanks again.

  8. Eugene England was one of Lowell Bennion’s students.

  9. Also, Carrie: we can still work together to make the Church you hoped for!

  10. I assigned my Book of Mormon classes at BYU 3 Bennion essays. They were generally well received.

  11. My Mission President gave all of us missionaries a copy of “Things That Matter Most”. That’s a good place to start if you can find it (That was 35 years ago).

  12. It’s the first selection in England’s collection (and for good reason).

  13. Just ordered the England collection. Can’t wait. Thanks again, Jason.

  14. Thanks Jason. I am ordering books now. I read for an extra hour over at the blog link you suggested, then taking a leaf out of his book I practiced my piano with better diligence. Can’t wait to read more and hopefully perform my life in more meaningful way.

  15. Awesome! This coincides so nicely with Lent, which should be a time of simplifying so as to give greater attention to the things that matter.

  16. Mary Lythgoe Bradford says:

    Thank you all for keeping Lowell’s name alive!

  17. Thank you for a marvelous biography! Reading it was a great pleasure to me!

  18. I have never heard of Lowell Bennion. It is fantastic to read articles such as this. Thank you. Please do more.

  19. EG: you’re welcome! For more like this, click on “Mormon Lectionary Project” in the post; we’ve done quite a few of these, and we have many more in the works.

  20. Rebecca England says:

    Thank you. Lowell profoundly influenced at least two generations personally. I feel lucky to have interacted with him, including visiting his Teton Valley Boys Ranch, joining in a service project, having him serve my friend and me lunch from his garden, visiting him as Parkinson’s took its toll, reading his writings, and hearing numerous stories about him from those who knew him well. Lowell was my parents’ most influential teacher. I treasure my memories and books of and about him. A beautiful soul and great teacher.

  21. Rebecca England says:

    I wish there was a website that made some of Lowell Bennion’s writings available. Here is a link to an essay Eugene England wrote about his mentor: http://eugeneengland.org/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/1996_a_002.pdf

  22. Agreed that it’d be great to have a site collecting Lowell’s writings. The one for your dad’s is a treasure.

  23. Bennion represents a form Mormon liberalism that no longer exists. I think some of this has to do with the decline of a serious LDS presence among the faculty at the University of Utah. Plus, Ernest Wilkinson won the battle for the heart of Mormonism. I was born in 1976, so I really do not remember any of these figures. I only started reading Bennion in grad school (2002-2005) when I found a collection of Dialogue essays at a yard sale in Emigration Canyon (I knew his name because the service learning center is named after him at the U. Also, his son Steve was president of Ricks when I was there before my mission). It included an essay by Bennion on faith and reason. I taught that essay when I taught political inquiry at BYU-Idaho. I have a collection of his social essays. I do not have it in front of me, but I will share it when I am home. I love that collection more than his biography. Mostly because I connected to it as a modernist. I do not share Nibley’s ancient interests, so I was exited to find Bennion. I think Bennion more a teacher than a scholar. I say that with affection. However, that also limits the reach of his thought and influence.

    Sorry for the rambling. I have thought of doing more writing and research on Bennion. Maybe someday.

  24. Mary Lythgoe Bradford says:

    I AM THRILLED that you young thinkers and scholars are discovering Bennion–More power to you!

  25. Thanks, Mary! If one goal of this series is to increase awareness of the goodness that can be found outside the LDS tradition, we’re also very much about drawing attention to underappreciated figures within the tradition. Lowell Bennion deserves to be remembered in his own right, but we as a people would also stand to lose by forgetting him.

  26. Chris Henrichsen wrote, “Bennion represents a form Mormon liberalism that no longer exists.”

    I disagree. Many of us are thrilled to find/read the works of Lowell B. & Gene England (& Hugh B. Brown, B.H. Roberts, etc…) because their beliefs and writings resonate so deeply with our own.

    What I think (maybe?) you meant was that Mormon liberalism seems to no longer exist in Church hierarchy. [Or if it does, there seems to be little (if any) freedom to express it.]

    Many of us feel spiritually nourished by people like the Bushmans, Givens, BCC, Adam Miller and others – but none of them are General Authorities – and there’s a growing rift – or maybe a kind of polarity happening – because of that.

  27. Chris can correct me, but I took him to be speaking institutionally. Certainly there are Mormon liberals now, but we, unlike Lowell Bennion and Sterling McMurrin, cannot sit down and discuss our “unorthodox” views with the president of the Church and enjoy a degree of protection as a result (although President McKay apparently could not protect Bennion from the juggernaut that was Ernest Wilkinson). There was even speculation that Bennion would be called as an apostle, and I think everyone would be shocked if, say, Bushman or Givens were called to the 12 (although not as shocked as they would be if Joanna Brooks were called).

  28. “dead” might be more hyperbole on my part than anything else.

    I am not just thinking institutionally. I think the number of people, even on the bloggernacle, who have encountered Bennion or England are quite narrow.

    Bushman is in his 80s. Givens is not a liberal.

    Anyways, I will need to reflect more on this. Teaching middle school has fried my weak mind. I think much the reason that Mormon liberalism is dead is because Wilkinson-style Mormonism crushed it. Something like that.

  29. Mary Lythgoe Bradford says:

    I hope that Koffords will reprint some of Lowell’s “Little Books.”