A Different Wentworth and a Different Letter. B. H. Roberts on Faith Crisis, Part I of IV(?): Wentworth’s Christian Vision.

Brigham Henry Roberts (1857-1933) was an LDS general authority (1888-1933). A well known church writer, historian, missionary, and political firebrand, Roberts wrote frequently for church publications, though his output on certain subjects had diminished over the last few decades of his life. He often published in the church’s Improvement Era magazine, alternately devoted to the young men of the church, the priesthood quorums, and then the combined young men and young women of the church, though it was read by older cohorts as well.

In June 1932, a recent Harvard graduate, Philip Wentworth, published an essay in The Atlantic, detailing his faith crisis and transition away from Christianity and his midwestern Presbyterian roots. The article was a fine piece of work, and its points were rather sharp. In this part, I’ll summarize Wentworth’s history and in the second part of the post (to be published sometime next week I think) I’ll look at Wentworth’s account of his descent into a rationalist mire. In part 3 (and possibly a 4th part), I’ll look at Roberts’s response in the Era after reading Wentworth’s piece.

Wentworth notes that he grew up in a small midwestern town, and characterized his upbringing in a short reminiscence. He wrote:

My earliest distinct recollection is of family prayers. This was a regular feature of our daily life. After supper we would retire to the library, where my father, with wife and children gathered about him, would read a chapter from the Scriptures. Psalms and Proverbs were his favorite books, and he repeated them so often that I soon knew them by heart. After the reading came prayers, during which each little event of the day would be rehearsed and we would give thanks to God for all the good things we had enjoyed.

Wentworth adds

I was born a good Presbyterian, and, fittingly enough, predestination played an important role in my early life. Both of my parents were gentle, unaffected, devoted Christians, and my father was an elder in the church. We lived in a small city of the Middle West, on the fringe of what H.L. Mencken calls ‘the Bible Belt.’ Long before I could be aware of it myself, the double accident of parentage and geography had shaped me for the service of God.

He tells of an admirable minister who was universally beloved and much of Wentworth’s hometown experience could be cast in many a small town in the Pioneer Corridor (read the typical long-serving beloved bishop for minister). Wentworth’s developing perceptions were that, “The world was created by God as a laboratory for testing human beings. In the Bible He had revealed His commandments, which were distinct, direct, and admitted of no argument. Obedience to these injunctions was virtue, disobedience sin. The one meant honor and happiness and life everlasting; the other was the way of shame and disgrace in this world” . . . “God, however, was more than a moralist. He was also an engineer.

The world which He had fashioned was not an automatic mechanism. It had been set going in the beginning by its Creator, and he, like a good mechanic, had been tinkering with it ever since. The forces that moved it were direct manifestations of His power. ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.’ If He could save men from their sins, He could also protect them against accidents, diseases, and the shafts of their enemies. Faith and good works, then, were not only the way of the soul’s salvation, they were also the best kind of insurance against the stings of fortune while one lived . . . God was constantly being moved by the prayers of the just to repeat in our day the miracles He had performed in ancient times. Everyone who had eyes could see it for himself. Did not our pastor often intercede for the recovery of the sick, and did they not usually get well? Did he not pray every Sunday that the President of the United States would be given wisdom to lead the affairs of the nation, and was not our prosperity the manifest answer? It was all very simple and all very right, and surely the way of the transgressor was hard.

It looks like Wentworth intends to layout some social theodicy here, and in some ways, he does not disappoint. God is a wonder-worker, and is consistently kicking over the traces of natural law and upsetting the normal sequence of cause and effect and this occupies an important place –perhaps the central theme of Christian cosmology.[1]

Wentworth tells of his interview with his pastor, who is uneasy about the young man’s choice of education: Harvard. Wentworth had been accepted by the local Presbytery as a candidate for the ministry and needed religious education. His pastor warned that Harvard had been “smirched” by Unitarianism (after all, the name meant a rejection of trinitarianism) and no Unitarian could transfer fellowship to his church without severe examination. Wentworth’s well-loved pastor recommended his own tiny Missouri college. No danger there from the temptations of rationalism.

Wentworth saw the growing shades of liberal Protestantism as really just a kind of social club, church going among such elites is just form without real conviction. If you want real conviction Wentworth says, try Catholicism or what we might call Evangelical churches.[2] Sitting in (nearly) the second quarter of the twenty-first century, one can see Wentworth’s vision as temporary. But it’s apt for the time.

In part II, I’ll look at Wentworth’s narrative of his loss of faith.

[1] Many Latter-day Saints thinkers of the early twentieth century (the usual trinity of Talmage, Widtsoe, Roberts, say) would argue that miracles are merely the action of undiscovered physical laws. There’s something to this, but it’s not as simple as that. Causality is tricky. Let’s call this a future post.

[2] For an excellent overview, see our own Matthew Bowman’s Christian: The Politics of a Word in America (Harvard UP, 2018).


  1. Kristin Brown says:

    You’ve got me…keep going!

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