I’m excited to have Newell Bringhurst back on the show. Newell’s latest book is the short biography of Harold B Lee. Lee had one of the shortest tenures as LDS Church president, but that belies his lasting influence on the Church. Lee is the one who really implemented correlation in the Church. We’ll talk about Lee’s early life growing up, his political ambitions, his amazing work on Church welfare, and his time as a general authority in the LDS Church. Check out our conversation…
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Early Life of Harold B Lee
GT 00:34 Welcome to Gospel Tangents. I’m excited to have a returning guest. I think this is his fourth time. You’re coming up there with Matt Harris. I’ve had him on four times. So, tell us who you are first.
Newell 00:47 Well, I’m Newell Bringhurst, and as Rick has pointed out, I’ve been on Gospel Tangents three previous times. I’m an independent scholar, a retired professor of history and political science from College of the Sequoias in Visalia, California. I guess I’d say I’ve had a lifelong passion and interest in Latter-day Saint history and studies.
GT 01:14 Yes. So, [you’re] one of my favorite historians, Newell I don’t know if you knew that. That’s true. So, we’re here to talk about– I think this is your latest book, isn’t it?
Newell 01:23 Yes, it is.
GT 01:24 So, why don’t you show this to the camera, this book that we’re going to be talking about today?
Newell 01:29 Harold B Lee: Life and Thought. It was an unintended biography. I had no intention, whatsoever, of doing this biography, unlike other major works that I’ve done in the past. I usually say, “I want to look at that topic or that individual more carefully.” And Harold B Lee was one of those that came out of left field, so to speak. It was actually Gary Bergera, who coerced me with a $5,000 honorarium, if I would do a biography, a short biography, for this series that they’re putting together, which is akin to the various short biography series that have been done on American historical figures, on world historical figures. They wanted a short, succinct biography. I couldn’t resist the temptation to do it, because I’d previously done a similarly short biography on Brigham Young, for the library of American biography series, which was edited by the prestigious Harvard historian, Oscar Handlin. I guess, Gary was in kind of the role of being the local Oscar Handlin and being the overall supervisorial, editor of this series. Mine was the first in a series of short biographies on major Mormon figures. The second one that just recently came out is one done by Gary Topping on Michael Quinn.
GT 03:15 Oh, yes, yes, that’s another one. I’ve read this one. I haven’t read that one yet. I’m excited to talk about Harold B Lee, because I know you told me off camera one time, that he was not your favorite character.
Newell 03:29 Far from it. I always looked at him as a little bit of a counter figure, because I guess a lot of it was his very orthodox conservative views, particularly on the issue of race. Because he stood out to me as a major figure who stood in the way of lifting the black priesthood ban, when Hugh B Brown was pushing for it to be lifted back in 1969. And he put the kibosh on that. He was the one that said, “Instead of lifting the ban, we’re going to reassert the ban as essential Mormon doctrine,” which was done through the 1969 statement, saying that it is a doctrine. And that had reinforced an earlier statement when it was first proclaimed as being doctrine back in 1949. It was like a restatement of what had been said 20 years earlier, a doubling down on the part of Harold B. Lee. So, as I say, he was not one of my favorite figures because I had, as you’re aware, I had done a number of careful studies on the black priesthood ban.
GT 04:50 Saints, Slaves and Blacks, which is a great book, by the way. And you’ve got a new second edition out, right?
Newell 04:55 Right. Yeah, Greg Kofford has just published this. I think was 2018-2019 when they reissued it at with a new introduction, and some additional material. I left the text pretty much as I had originally written it, because I didn’t feel like my ideas had really changed that much. I felt, in fact, that they had been affirmed and confirmed by subsequent scholars, including Armand Mauss, and Paul Reeve, who, Paul incidentally, who wrote a very wonderful, generous prologue or an epilogue to the reissue.
GT 04:55 Yeah, Paul wrote Religion of a Different Color, and he’s coming up with a new book on the 1852 legislature, which I can’t wait for.
Newell 05:46 Right. Yeah.
GT 05:48 I was talking to Paul, earlier this year, and I said, “Can I talk to you before or after your book comes out?” He told me after, and I was like, “No, I wanted before.”
Newell 05:59 I didn’t realize he was doing a whole book. I know, he’s been working very closely with a couple of other scholars. the woman who has been able, who worked for the Church, who was able to decipher the shorthand…
GT 06:13 LaJean Carruth.
Newell 06:14 LaJean Carruth, and with a lawyer and I can’t remember his name.
GT 06:19 Chris Rich.
Newell 06:20 Chris Rich. I know he’s been working on that particular, crucial, period with those two scholars. So, I’m not sure if this is going to be in conjunction with them or not. I thought it was just going to be an article length. I didn’t realize he was doing a whole book.
GT 06:35 A whole book, yeah. I think he’s done with the book. It’s to the publisher, but sometimes that process takes a while. So, I believe that’s correct. Hopefully, that’s right, Paul. So, Paul, you’re next. (Chucklng) Well, let’s dive into Harold B Lee: Life and Thought. So, one of the interesting things is I think he was ordained as a 10-year-old Deacon. Is that right?
Newell 07:01 That’s correct, yeah. That’s very unusual, because I didn’t realize that was even within legal or within church canon that they would allow somebody to be ordained as a 10-year-old deacon. That was reflective of his precocity, that he was extremely bright. He stood out in terms of his intellect and his drive and just who he was.
GT 07:27 Yeah, yeah. So, I mean, that’s pretty precocious.
Newell 07:31 (Chuckling) [Yeah,] a 10-year-old Deacon.
GT 07:33 It seems like he grew up in Idaho. Was it near Ezra Taft Benson? I think it was.
Newell 07:38 Yeah, they were close. They lived close to one another, but they never knew each other until they got into Oneida Academy, which was sort of like the high school up there. They never really met or knew each other. But he lived in Clifton, Idaho, which is a very small town in the upper Cache valley. It’s a pretty rugged environment up there, because it’s about a 4000-foot elevation, harsh winters. So, if you farm up there, it’s a very precarious existence. He grew up in that precarious existence. The family struggled financially. And that was something, I think, that stayed with Harold B Lee is the struggle of his own family to eke out a livelihood in that environment. I should mention, there was one other famous, noteworthy person that came out that small town, which has never had a population more than 2000 or 3000. Even right down to the present, it stayed pretty much the same size it was when Harold B Lee was a boy. Interestingly enough, the other very noteworthy person to come out of that town is Tara Westover, who is the author of Educated. She talks about her hardscrabble childhood, and her parents were kind of nutty types. Unlike Harold B Lee, they were almost on [the edge.] They were LDS. They were Mormon. But they were survivalist Mormons. They were right on the edge of the church, so to speak.
GT 09:15 Right, right. Yeah. I should get her on some time. That’s an interesting story. Now, I know, it seems like Harold’s father got into some financial shenanigans with the church, right?
Newell 09:31 Well, yes. I mean, it’s interesting. It was almost a product of not his doing anything of a malevolent nature, but almost of his generosity, but also trying to survive their own financial problems. He was the bishop of the ward up there. Shortly after, about the time that Harold B Lee came back from his mission in Colorado, his father was disfellowshipped for the misappropriation of funds. It’s unclear what exactly was involved in the misappropriation of funds, whether he siphoned them off for his own use, [or something else.] I haven’t followed that up that closely. But it was a shattering experience, not just for Samuel Lee, Harold’s father, but for the whole family. It had a profound impact on Harold B Lee. I think it helped to reinforce in him, his very careful conservatism in the handling of church funds. I think that came right down into his period, his apostleship, and also as president of the Church. He didn’t want to get into a situation where that was going to be a problem in the Church as a whole.
GT 11:05 Well, and I know some similar issue came up later, I think, when he was a Church leader, that someone had misused funds, and he was like, “Hey, look what happened to my dad, you’re going to be treated the same way.”
Newell 11:17 Well, I think a lot of it had to do with the building program in the early 1960s. It involved, I’m trying to get this name. He was high Church leader. that’s terrible [that] I can’t [remember.] It’s been a while since I wrote the book. But Mendenhall, I think, was the head of the buildings program. There was an apostle, who was over that, a fellow apostle. He was junior to Harold B Lee in terms of seniority. But he was older. He was older. Isn’t that terrible I’m having this this, what do you call it? A brain fart. sorry about the term.
GT 11:21 (Chucking)
Newell 11:40 But if you knew his name, and I was just looking at it earlier. You’d know the name if you heard it, because it’s a very prominent family in Salt Lake. They were a law family, and he died suddenly, when all of this was going on. Do you know who I’m talking about?
GT 12:28 I do, but I can’t remember the name, either.
Newell 12:31 But you would know the name immediately. Unfortunately, this book doesn’t have a table of contents. So, I can’t refer to it very quickly. But he died in the middle of this and, I guess, N. Eldon Tanner was brought in to replace him and to clean up this mess that he had caused, he and Mendenhall.
GT 12:52 Was it Moyle?
Newell 12:53 Moyle, Henry D. Moyles. Thank you very much, a very prominent, Utah family. They were among the royalty. They were very well-fixed financially. Moyle and Lee, both bright intelligent men, but both very strong-willed. Moyle, who came out of the very privileged background, didn’t have too much trouble saying, “Oh, I can spend as much as I want on these things.”
Newell 13:23 Whereas Lee, who comes out of a much more stringent background said, “Hey, we’re going too far. We’re going too far.” So, the church was in a financial bind, during the 1960s. So, they were looking for ways to try to recoup. And, as I say, when Moyle died, Tanner was brought in, and he ended up straightening out things, N. Eldon Tanner.
GT 13:51 Yeah, he really [did.] Because I know under McKay, the church was really in some financial difficulties because they had overspent of the tithing funds and that [sort of] thing with the building programs.
Newell 14:01 Yeah.
GT 14:02 I think Tanner kind of led us to where we’ve got $100 billion now today, right?
Newell 14:07 Yeah, I mean, he turned out to be a very, very efficient administrator and one of the more effective of the Church leaders who came along during this period.
GT 14:18 Right, right.
Lee’s Political & Welfare Work
GT 14:19 So, one of the interesting things was to learn about President Lee’s feelings on Prohibition. Can you talk about that?
Newell 14:29 Well, he was serving in politics at that time when Prohibition, the 18th Amendment was in effect. He was on the Salt Lake City Commission, and he had been appointed [to] that position, but he had to run for a full term. He was filling out the term of somebody who had passed on and [he] was on there by appointment. So, in the 1932 election, he was up for reelection. Also, on the ballot, what complicated his candidacy was there is this measure to repeal the 18th Amendment. Utah happened to be the one state left that they needed the vote to lift Prohibition. So, he was placed in the position of, “Where do you stand on this?”
Newell 15:39 Quite frankly, he ended up finessing the issue. He didn’t really come right out, “I’m either for it or against it.” But he did the politically expedient thing and saying that he wasn’t in favor of going back to the way the saloons were before Prohibition. But he wasn’t in favor. He indicated that Prohibition hadn’t quite worked the way that it should. But he did it in a very nuanced way.
Newell 16:03 So, when he needed to be carefully political, he was able to finesse that issue and overcome opposition. Because he was opposed for a full term on the Salt Lake City Commission. I think he would have been an effective officeholder because he had the intelligence and the perception of doing that, because he was urged to run for governor, two different times. In 1940, there are people urging him to run for the Republican nomination for governor. Then, again, in 1944, after he’d been appointed to the apostleship, after he was an apostle. They wanted to try to get him to run for–and a delegation of leading Republicans urged him to run. But again, he declined. Then, one last time in ‘46. Again, there was a groundswell of opinion, to get him, within the Republican Party, to get him to run for United States senator, because the incumbent senator at that time, a guy named Abe Murdock appeared to be very vulnerable. They thought that if they got a strong enough candidate and 46 was a year of Republican ascendancy. That was a year that it could have happened. Because at that time, both J. Reuben Clark, who had initially told Lee to hold back in 40 and 44, Reuben Clark was seemed to give the okay sign as to David O. McKay. But the one missing person who was not there to give the green light was George Albert Smith, who was president of the Church at that time. For whatever reasons, he was out of town or incapacitated, or something. He had frail health. So, he was unable to get the final approval, because he could have very well run in ‘46. I mean, he came so close and that’s when he was still an apostle. So, the history of the Church could have turned out very much differently in terms of the trajectory of his life career.
GT 18:14 So, he would have been an apostle senator, just like Reed Smoot.
Newell 18:17 Well, I don’t know. I guess that’s a possibility. Because certainly, what happened prior with, like you say, with Smoot, and subsequently with Ezra Taft Benson, serving concurrently as Secretary of Agriculture and still maintaining his apostleship, I guess there was precedent for that. I don’t know. That would have been an interesting situation, because it would have been a replication of what Smoot had done some 40 years earlier.
GT 18:50 Yeah. That’s interesting. So, one of his big accomplishments before he became an apostle, was with the welfare system. Can you talk about his what happened there?
Newell 19:01 Well, that came out of the distress of the Great Depression and the strong anti-New Deal attitudes that existed within the highest leadership of the church on the part of J. Reuben Clark…
GT 19:17 Why were they so against the New Deal?
Newell 19:18 Well, they felt like it was too much government intervention. There was always this, within the church, there’s always been this leeriness about too much government overreach. A lot of that, I think, goes back to when the anti-polygamy things that went on in the late 19th century. They were just always very leery of interventionist federal government, and they felt that the New Deal program was encouraging people to not take advantage of their own initiative. [It would promote] laziness and so on. They felt that it was too much like a dole, just paying him for not doing anything.
GT 21:10 Socialism.
Newell 21:11 So, there’s always been that strong– well, I guess you could say socialism or just too much government destroying people’s self-initiative to go out there and do something for themselves.
Newell 20:24 So, the welfare program was an attempt to take that away from the federal government, the idea of relief. But the people would play a role in their own relief. It was based on the foundation was agriculture. They would take the agricultural crops and process them, set up their own plants or bottling/canning factories and stuff like that. [They would] take agricultural produce, and then make it available, so, people within the Church, would be involved, and it would give them work. And it would take this surplus, because there’s a lot of agricultural surplus out there, and make it available to those who needed it. So, that was the basis was you take the agricultural surplus, make it into food and other commodities. Then, along that, they also created making clothing and so on. [They were] also involved in building and that. The people that would be involved, they would provide employment, and then they would also benefit from what was being produced.
Newell 21:51 Whereas, at this very time, the New Deal, they were actually destroying agricultural crops through the relief programs are being set up. Because the federal government was saying, “We’re going to destroy these crops so that the prices will go up.” Because the prices for farm commodities was so low, and you had a surplus. They have the opposite approach. Instead of taking the commodities and destroying them, within the church welfare program, they were taking those surplus commodities and producing them and distributing them to members within the church. So, it made a lot of common sense, the rationale for the program. But it helped a good number of people within the church. So, there was a degree of success. But the irony is, the majority of Latter-day Saints continued to be involved in New Deal programs. It wasn’t just the agricultural commodities program, but in various work projects, programs that were going on, in roads and bridges and other types of [programs.] A lot of people were involved, including Latter-day Saints, a good percentage of Latter-day Saints. So, it was a mixed success in terms of getting people away from government relief, so to speak.
GT 23:18 Yeah, so he was really recognized for this welfare program, right?
Newell 23:23 He was. He became a national figure, and that’s what kind of propelled him into the limelight, both within the Church hierarchy, where they saw him as a future Church leader, and within the secular, political community who wanted to see him run for public office. I mean, his whole setting up of the Church Welfare Program, which started out in his stake. He started out in the Pioneer Stake with the with a local stake-centered Relief Program upon which was the template on which the church-wide program was set up.
GT 24:00 Were there any people within the Church that were opposed to anything that Harold B Lee did?
Newell 24:03 Oh, yes, there were. I mean, there were several people, including Steven A. Richards, and a guy named Sylvester Cannon, who, interestingly enough, was the Presiding Bishop. Because I think he clearly saw it as kind of invasion of his bailiwick, because the Presiding Bishop was over food distribution and that type of thing within the Church, itself. So, I think it was a turf battle on the part of Sylvester Cannon, but the big proponent who was supporting Lee in it was, of course, J. Reuben Clark. That’s an interesting story in and of itself, because Clark was Lee’s mentor. I mean, Lee looked to Clark as a father figure, both emotionally, as well as, spiritually, in every way, kind of replacing his disgraced father after all of this stuff happened up in Idaho. [Harold B Lee’s father] really was a broken man.
GT 25:08 He was never able to get over that.
Newell 25:09 Oh, yeah. I mean, poor, poor Samuel Lee. He ended up being a night watchman at ZCMI, and he just was a sad figure, a sad, sad figure.
GT 25:23 Interesting. Can you talk a little bit more about Lee and Clark’s interactions together?
Newell 25:29 Yes, as I say, it was very much of like a father/son relationship. I mean, Clark was supporting Lee in everything that he did in the welfare program. Initially, he was a strong proponent. He was the one that got him put on the Twelve. I mean, he was the primary driving force in getting this young whippersnapper, who was only 41 years old, when he was ordained to the Twelve in 1942.
GT 26:00 That’s really young.
Newell 26:01 I mean, that is really young. So, it was Clark’s initiative that said, “This man’s going to be it.” Because I’m sure, at the time, he was calculating that being put on there so much younger than any of the apostles, he was going to be a future Church president because he was some 22 years younger than the next youngest guy on the Quorum of the Twelve, when he went on, who was Sylvester Cannon, the guy that had opposed him. It’s interesting. They took old Sylvester, he came from very prominent family law Cannon family and, Sylvester Cannon was sort of pushed off, eased out as Presiding Bishop. Then, they found a vacancy on the Twelve to put him on. So, he was the second most junior apostle when Lee was appointed, at age 41.
GT 27:00 Yeah.
Newell 27:01 And he was in his 60s.
Lee’s Stance on Race & Priesthood
GT 27:04 Right. So it’s interesting. I know, one of the things that really struck me, there was an attempt within President McKay’s administration to send some missionaries to Nigeria and Lee opposed that.
Newell 27:18 Yes, very much so. As I said, the thing that I found the most problematic in my opinion about Lee, was his attitudes on race. I mean, it conformed with his basic conservatism, his neoorthodoxy and his conservative [ideals.] He wasn’t a blatant outright racist, like some of the people that we’re really into the racist theology. He said his piece on the race issue in Youth of a Noble Birthright, which was published in a book, which was originally a radio speech that he gave in 1945. It was subsequently published in a book, Youth and the Church. He defended the traditional arguments that they had been less valiant in the pre-existence. They were an accursed, dark-skinned race. I mean, he went along with all of those arguments. But he didn’t state them over and over and over again, the way that people like, President Joseph Fielding Smith did, who was the leading theologian, who really articulated and made him up to a fine, sharp point. Or, like his son-in-law, Bruce R. McConkie, who proclaimed it Mormon Doctrine, in the work that was published in 1959. Or people like, I guess, Alvin R. Dyer, or Mark E. Peterson. I guess, Mark E. Peterson gave one of the most, I guess, pointed arguments. But Lee was not that way. I mean, he was steadfast in his belief that blacks were not worthy to receive the priesthood, and until the Lord spoke, that was going to be the doctrine of the Church. It would take the Lord speaking loud and clear, to make it clear that the ban was to be lifted. And he had no inspiration, whatsoever, that the Lord was speaking loud and clear to him to lift the ban and that was irrevocable right up until the time of his death.
Newell 29:47 As I pointed out, in that letter that he writes to Hugh B Brown’s daughter, concerning Hugh B Brown’s granddaughter who had married a black man. It’s interesting. Her name is Rila Jorgensen. She’s writing Lee, saying, “Gosh, my son-in-law is just so distraught. He feels like he’s part of an accursed race. He’s not even worthy to be a Latter-day Saint and refuses to be baptized into the church.”
Newell 30:23 Lee responds to that. This is three months before his death. And Lee responds to that letter by just completely ignoring the anguish of this young man and proceeding to lecture Hugh Brown’s daughter on the justification for the ban. He makes no reference at all to the anguish or the feelings of this young man, because he is so adamantly opposed. He’s already doubled down on the legitimacy of the ban in the wake of Stephen Taggart’s book, which came out in the late 60s, and Lester Bush’s article. He has doubled down that the ban is fixed doctrine. There’s no question in his mind, I must say, in his defense. But as a counter argument, I think it’s part of his overall belief in the conservative orthodoxy of Mormon doctrine and practices in general. I don’t see him as a blatant racist, per se. I just see him as fixed, because this is the way that churches operated, since going back to the mid-19th century.
GT 31:45 Well, it seems like he and Hugh B Brown did a lot of battles, in the 1960s, especially. Because I know Brown, as early as 1962, was trying to overturn the ban.
Newell 31:56 Yes, and he was. I mean, it was interesting, because their relationship initially was very congenial. They worked together, back during World War II. They were on the Servicemen’s Committee, working with the LDS servicemen serving during World War II. And, in fact, Lee was so impressed \ working with Brown, saying, “He’s done such a great job, I just hope he gets to be an apostle.” I mean, this was back in the 40s. So, at that period of time, they had a very congenial relationship. But they broke with one another over the race issue. That came later, that came in the 1960s, when Brown was pushing to lift the ban, and Lee was just the opposite, saying it’s got to stay in place. It’s fixed doctrine.
GT 32:48 Was Brown junior to Lee, then?
Newell 32:50 Yes, he was in seniority, because Brown wasn’t even ordained an apostle. I think it was in the late 1950s. I think ’57-58 and Lee had been one of the Twelve since the early 40s. So, he [Brown] was by far a junior apostle. But the interesting thing is, McKay elevated him shortly after he’d been ordained apostle, elevated him to the First Presidency, in the early 1960s. So, in terms of the lines of authority, it looked like Brown was the senior figure. Because now he was a counselor in the First Presidency. So, Brown felt that he had the clout that he could push forward with his agenda to give blacks the priesthood. Whereas Lee looked at him and could say, didn’t say directly to him, but he is coming at it from, “I’m a senior apostle to him.” So, that’s one of the reasons why he was dropped from the First Presidency after the death of David O. McKay, in 1970 under the presidency of Joseph Fielding Smith. The supreme irony is that when the First Presidency is reorganized, Brown is dropped as first counselor, after [McKay’s] death, and Lee is installed as first counselor in the place of Brown. So, I mean, he’s taken over that position. So, you know the ban is not going to be lifted. And already, in 1969, they’ve issued the reaffirmation that it’s fixed doctrine…
GT 34:43 Yeah.
Newell 34:44 …with the First Presidency statement, which, curiously enough, was not signed by David O. McKay. But it was signed by the two counselors, N. Eldon Tanner, and Hugh B Brown.
GT 34:57 Was this December of 1969?
Newell 34:59 Yeah, it was signed, the statement.
GT 35:01 Because McKay died in January.
GT 35:02 Yeah, the statement comes out just before his death.
GT 35:08 Yeah.
Newell 35:08 It’s curious timing, because President McKay is so feeble, he’s unable to sign the statement. It’s only signed by the two counselors. It’s one of those situations where Brown is compelled to affix his signature to this document. I mean, this is the ultimate humiliation that he’s forced [sign.] It’s sort of like something out of The Godfather, “either your signature or your brains are going to be on this document.” I mean, it’s maybe that’s saying it a little bit crudely, but it kind of says almost the same thing. So, Brown feels compelled to affix his signature to this document that he absolutely detests.
GT 35:49 Right.
Newell 35:50 Because, to maintain unity within the Church.
GT 35:54 Well, I know Matt’s coming out with his new book on all of that.
Newell 35:58 He’s got a lot more to say about that than I do.
GT 35:59 I know. I can’t wait. He said a lot on my podcast a few years ago. So, you’ll definitely want to check that out. Because the whole Lee/Brown dynamics is just fascinating.
Newell 36:12 And Brown is absolutely devastated by, in retrospect, and he never lived to see the ban lifted, because he dies in 1974-75, I think. And, as I say, it’s a sad, sad story. As I say, the double irony is a situation involving his granddaughter.
GT 36:31 Exactly.
Newell 36:32 That’s the supreme irony. I mean, that’s one of the things that’s always fascinated me about Church history, are the ironies and the twists and turns.
GT 36:42 I mean, I don’t know how to say this. Does it seem like Lee was really heartless, especially with Brown?
Newell 36:51 Well, he was adamant. I don’t know. On that point, I think he was very much inflexible on the race issue. There’s no doubt in my mind. If he had lived the normal lifespan, if he had lived [the normal lifespan] of a church leader into his 90s–he was only in his early 70s when he died. If he lived 20 more years, we would still be stuck with the ban.
GT 37:23 Right, Yeah.
Newell 37:25 I mean, I’m pretty convinced of that. I don’t know. As I say, we can’t predict the future. But he was pretty adamant about that, as I say, right up until his death. I mean, reflective, and that was a real find for me. I discovered that letter, that exchange between Lee, and Hugh B Brown’s daughter. It was in his personal papers, which I had access to. Nobody had ever seen that document.
GT 37:56 What did the document say?
Newell 37:58 Well, as I say, it was a personal correspondence. There were two letters from the daughter to Lee, saying, “My African-American son-in-law is very distraught about the black issue, and about his status in the church. He refuses to join the church, because he feels like he’s unworthy. He feels like he’s an accursed race.”
Women, LGBT, and Race Parallels in LDS Church
GT 38:25 Do you see a parallel with LGBT issues today?
Newell 38:28 Oh, boy, that’s a quagmire. Isn’t it? It’s a real quagmire. I have a gay brother. In fact, my brother who I just took to the airport. I saw him struggle through the course of his life over that issue, and, finally, to the point where he’s able to resolve his–he’s had a very loving relationship. They’re married in Alabama, of all places.
GT 38:56 Oh, wow.
Newell 38:59 He struggled for many, many years, struggled with that issue. He wasn’t a particularly active, believing Latter-day Saint. He’s extremely bright and articulate. Like me, he asked too many questions. So, really, by the time he was in his teenage years, he was not involved in the church. But there was always that element of somehow that the way the Church has handled it. Harold B Lee considered it an abomination, an awful thing. He had some pretty nasty things, I guess we’d call them today, to say about homosexuality, in conformity with his conservative views. I feel the Church is, really, in a very difficult position on that issue. Unlike the black issue, where there is clear evidence that blacks were indeed ordained to the priesthood in the early church. As far as the LGBTQ issue, it runs counter to basic Mormon/Latter-day Saint theology, the concept of how they view the eternal concept of family, the whole idea of same-sex dynamics or same sex relationships being carried into the eternities. It’s so counter to the way that the overall Mormon theology is set up, the eternal nature of families, the propagation of additional souls in the hereafter and all of that eternal progression. It runs counter to what is essential Mormon theology. So, I have a very hard time seeing how the Church is going to resolve that conundrum. But that’s just me from an inactive, nonpracticing, Latter-day Saint, somewhat of an outside observer.
Newell 41:08 There might be other dynamics going on among Church leaders, which I’m not privy to. But I really don’t see it as really anything that is going to happen in the near future. I will say, likewise, that’s probably true with the idea of ordaining women, only maybe that’s less so. Because, again, it runs counter to the basic patriarchy of the way the church is structured. I mean, we’ve gotten so used to, it’s run by men. It’s been run by men from the very beginning. I tend to disagree with Mike Quinn, who claimed that women were ordained to the Church, which got him excommunicated. I tend to question that, because the evidence doesn’t seem convincing enough to me. He got excommunicated, specifically, I guess, for that article. To me, it seemed like it was kind of a frail argument, I thought. I’m sure he was excommunicated more for the overall body of his work and for the fact that it was clear that he was he was gay.
GT 42:21 Margaret Toscano makes the claim that the Relief Society was a priesthood quorum.
Newell 42:26 Yeah.
GT 42:27 You don’t see it that way, either?
Newell 42:28 Well, maybe. I would see it, maybe, as an auxiliary priesthood of priestesses. But they don’t have the same degree of authority or clout. I mean, how would it fit in with the overall structure of church leadership, a Relief Society quorum of priestesses? In studying the evolving structure of the church, how the organizational structure evolved, I wonder how that would fit within the overall structure of the church, the way that it was developed. [It was] 1835, when you have the major changes, the setting up of the Quorum of the Twelve, the First Presidency and the Seventies. Then, getting to the end of Joseph’s life, it could have moved in that direction, perhaps, because he had already established the idea of being a king, the idea of the kingdom of God and he’d established the Quorum of the Anointed. But right at the end of his life, it seems like he was establishing a number of new institutions or structural institutions. So, the structure of the Church was becoming more complex by the end of his life. I find that very intriguing. The idea that the Relief Society, they are priestesses, kind of fits in with what he’s doing with these other aspects of the Church. So, maybe eventually, it would have evolved. Women would have had more of a role in the actual running of the church, driven in part, maybe by polygamy. I don’t know. I mean, I’ve always found one of the most intriguing questions in studying Church history, the very end of Joseph Smith’s life. If Joseph Smith had not been assassinated, how would the structure of the Church have evolved subsequently? There are so many interesting things are happening right at the end of Joseph’s life.
GT 42:34 Absolutely. So, I mean, this is kind of off the topic of Harold B Lee, but let’s go there. I was at the FAIR conference. I told you, yesterday. There was a woman, I wish I could remember her name, that spoke about the kingdom of priests and priestesses. She was quoting Jonathan Stapley’s article about women used to give blessings.
Newell 45:21 Right.
GT 45:22 Joseph said, “What’s the harm? If people are healed, God obviously accepts it.” Well, that lasted up through the about the 1940s, 50s.
Newell 45:33 Right, yeah, I think, yeah, right.
GT 45:34 I don’t see why that couldn’t come back. I know Quinn and Margaret Toscano both say, “You know what?” I mean, Margaret basically says, “By virtue of the endowment, women have priesthood.”
Newell 45:49 Yes. I agree.
GT 45:52 A woman that spoke yesterday, I think she was quoting Jonathan Stapley. [She] said that just a woman’s baptism gives her a form of authority, which I thought was very interesting. I know Quinn said, “If the president of the priesthood,” who’s currently President Nelson, “He could make a proclamation and say, ‘Yes, women can be bishops or women can be apostles,'” or whatever. Like, it’s his decision, as president of the priesthood.
Newell 46:24 Well, that sounds like a nice, good argument. I consider myself very much of a person who would favor women having the priesthood, because I think women are every bit as capable, in some ways more capable, of making leadership decisions. I think that would have been more of a possibility at Joseph Smith’s time, because of all the other changes he was making in terms of leadership. But the way the leadership of the Church is today has been so fixed and so structured. Actually, I think a counter argument be made, [that] the church has, actually, moved more and more in the opposite direction. They’ve taken away women’s empowerment in a lot of ways. I mean, the correlation was what Lee was responsible for, and correlation, in many ways, took away from women the authority to make budgetary decisions, the authority to publish their own journals and other publications. Part of the correlation thing was placing these auxiliaries, the women dominated auxiliaries, like the primary, the Young Women’s MIA, and the Relief Society, directly under priesthood authority. Because Lee’s intention, it wasn’t because he was a misogynist. It’s because he wanted greater efficiency, and the Church has moved in this direction of driven from the top authority.
Newell 48:11 I guess the argument against–so it’s a lot less likely today. I contend it’s a lot less likely today, than that would have been at Joseph Smith’s time, when the leadership structure and the organizational structure of the Church was still in more of a state of flux. Because after his death, things became much more structured. Because people were confused about, “Where is Joseph Smith taking the church?” That’s why there was so much fragmentation after Joseph’s death. So, immediately after Brigham Young comes in, I argue this in my Brigham Young biography, he’s very much determined to make sure things are structured. He clips the wings of the Relief Society, initially.
GT 49:03 Gets rid of the Quorum of the Anointed.
Newell 49:05 Exactly, and under correlation, I would argue that Harold B Lee, and correlation, we’re doing the same thing, by making the leadership or the structure of the Church much more top down. Because as the church has grown internationally, that has become an absolute priority if you’re going to keep/maintain the uniformity and the structure of the teachings and so on. I have a hard time seeing the Church moving toward giving women offices in the priesthood. They might say, “Well, maybe we’ll call the Relief Society, maybe we’ll go back to” what? During Joseph’s time, we’ll say they’re priestesses, and all of that. But I don’t see that very likely, either. Because if you look at the demographics of the Church, where they’re enjoying the greatest growth is in those countries outside the United States, where the members tend to be more conservative and more orthodox, more willing to follow the dictates of the top down leadership. So, I hate to sound like I’m a pessimist, but I would tend to question whether that is in the offing. I could be wrong.
GT 50:35 Let me throw something at you that President Nelson has done, because I do think this has been a relatively big change. I know that with baptisms, now, it doesn’t have to be a man that witnesses the baptisms. I was with my son at the temple recently, and women can be witnesses. So, that’s been a recent change that has expanded women’s role in the temple or even at a live baptism, not in the temple. So, it does seem like President Nelson’s expanding a little bit. [Do you have any] comments on that?
Newell 51:15 Yeah. Well, I agree. They’re trying to give women more of a role, like you say, in the performance of ordinances and stuff like that. And even in the running of particular wards or congregations. Don’t they have a strong structure where they bring in the women in what they call–what do they call it? It’s where there’s the bishopric and…
GT 51:42 PEC, Priesthood Executive Council.
Newell 51:44 Yeah, doesn’t each ward have an Executive Council, where women are included in that?
GT 51:51 The Relief Society and Young Women’s Presidency and things like that.
Newell 51:52 So, I think the Church…
GT 51:53 Ward council, I guess.
Newell 51:53 Yeah, Ward Council. That’s something that’s different that hasn’t existed before. So, I think that there’s a movement to try to give women more of a voice. I mean, there’s a difference between giving women more of a voice and giving them the authority to perform ordinances. I think that’s a tougher nut to crack. I think the Church has become very conscious of giving women more of a voice, including them in Conference talks, and so on, because they’re sensitive to the fact of what’s been going on in the larger society, where women have gotten to be more and more involved in the larger secular society, in running corporations, and in the leadership positions in other churches and, in politics. We’re a society where we’re really driven by gender equality. So, I think these are attempts to try to give some of that sense of a greater participation. But when the rubber hits the road, would they have the authority to act in the position of being a bishop or a counselor, in contrast to what you have in the Community of Christ?
GT 52:17 Quinn says all that has to happen is President Nelson says, “Yeah, now they can be a bishop.”
Newell 53:17 (Chuckling) But, would the rest of the leadership go along with that? I mean, I see when Nelson departs the scene, that the next leader of the Church is going to be Dallin Oaks and I see him as a much more orthodox, a more strict or by numbers guy than Nelson is. It’s ironic because I think it was about 10 years between Oaks and Nelson. I used to think that Oaks might be the more liberal when he first went on to Twelve. Because, I followed his career very, very closely. I think I may have told you this.
GT 53:56 You can tell us again.
Newell 53:56 People don’t want to hear it again, do they? No, not again. No, no, not again. I dated Dallin Oaks’ sister-in-law when I was in college. At that time, he was a professor at the University of Chicago, before he became BYU president. He was married to the older sister, June Dixon, and I was dating Linda Dixon. It was a summer romance and, as I tell people, when Dallin Oaks was elevated the Twelve, and he’d come in after Wilkinson as president of BYU and seemed to be a fresh a breath of fresh air after the Wilkinson regime. He seemed to be more [flexible.] He’d also co-authored a book. He had training as a historian. He had co-authored a very definitive study with Marvin Hill, called Carthage Conspiracy. So, he had experience as a historian.
GT 55:00 Yeah. It is a great book.
Newell 55:00 And that it was a fairly, open-minded book. So, I thought that, gosh, this guy’s, he’s coming in at a fairly young age…
GT 55:11 And he helped with Dialogue, too.
Newell 55:13 Yeah, I mean, all of this seemed to indicate that perhaps he’s going to be a more moderate, maybe not a liberal voice, but a more moderate, more like a Hugh B Brown, maybe, or something like that. And actually, what has happened is he’s moved more and more to the other direction. That’s kind of an interesting story in and of itself, what has pushed him in that other direction? I think it’s maybe the, I think it’s the demographics of the Church. As I say, the Church is enjoying his strongest growth in those parts of the world where the people that are joining tend to be more conservative. I think the fact he’s moving more and more to the right, is driven by Church demographics, which makes it tough for American Latter-day Saints.
GT 56:02 Yeah, definitely.
Newell 56:05 I didn’t mean to get off on that.
GT 56:06 That’s okay, we do tangents here.
Newell 56:09 It’s a little bit of a tangent from a tangent.
GT 56:12 Well, let’s jump back to Harold B Lee, there was a story about Ervil LeBaron. What can you tell us about Ervil LeBaron?
Newell 56:20 Well, there was an apparent death threat, because Ervil LeBaron was involved in the killing of Rulon Allred in 1978. So, he was a loose nut, anyway. So, there was fear that perhaps…
GT 56:34 LeBaron was a polygamist, right?
Newell 56:36 Yeah, down in Mexico, and he was a violent character. So, there was a threat. There was a perceived threat. I guess this had been before Allred, because Allred wasn’t killed until 1978, and Harold B Lee had been dead for quite a while. But this was a threat which was taken seriously and it didn’t amount to anything. I just mentioned in passing in my book. What it did is it forced the Church to tighten up its security in the Church Office Building and stuff like that. And people just couldn’t walk in.
GT 57:13 Because LeBaron had a hit out on, I know, President Kimball. Was it maybe on Harold B. Lee, as well?
Newell 57:20 Yeah, as I recall. I didn’t go into a lot of detail, because I didn’t have a lot of information on that incident. But the upshot was that it compelled a tightening of Church security.
Lee Purchased Land for Brazil Temple
GT 57:37 Well, one of the other things that I thought was very interesting, and I think Matt Harris just mentioned this recently in MHA. But it was in this book as well, was that President Lee had purchased land for the Brazil temple, right before his death.
Newell 57:58 Yeah.
GT 57:58 So I found that very interesting, because according to Matt Harris, that temple was instrumental…
Newell 58:05 Yes, that’s true.
GT 58:06 …in overturning the ban, because Brazil is full of interracial [people.]
Newell 58:10 That’s right. Yeah. And I think it was part of the international expansion of the Church. I don’t know, if President Lee agonized over what the racial implications are of that. It would be nice to have access to his presidential papers, and the official correspondence that was going on back and forth, with whether that was a topic that came up. But it was nowhere mentioned in the sources, that he contemplated that they’d have to face a problem of race. Although he himself, as he traveled, as I talked about in the book, he encountered several instances where the position and the status of blacks came up, visiting South America, visiting South Africa. But he didn’t seem to contemplate “Well, gosh, maybe we ought to consider lifting the ban.” I mean, he does encounter instances of blacks and their status in the church, but he never really elevates it to the level where he’s agonized over that the way that Spencer W. Kimball, his successor is, or that Hugh B Brown was before him. As I say, I think part of it is, he was just caught. He was so focused on maintaining the orthodoxy of Mormon beliefs and practices and maybe saw this as, if the ban is lifted, how’s that going to affect other doctrines and other practices within the Church itself?
Newell 1:00:17 If his papers were available, that issue could be elucidated in greater detail, or the correspondence that others received, that would be available. Because he corresponded with lower level [leaders,] mission presidents and so on. That’s going to be a task for another historian who does–because as I say, this is far from a definitive biography. This is an overview. But the real definitive, full-bodied biography on Harold B Lee remains to be seen. Mine is just an overview to try and give a sense of what his significance and importance in the Church was. I didn’t think that the previous biographies by Gibbons and by his son-in-law, Goates, I don’t think they elucidated fully to what his impact and significance were. That’s where I feel, even though, as thin as my volume is, it does that more thoroughly. But as I indicate, it is a much more nuanced, it’s a much more detailed story, and those documents, unfortunately, are not available.
GT 1:01:09 Hopefully, Matt can get his hands on it.
Newell 1:01:11 Well, Matt has done a great job in getting hold of this stuff…
GT 1:01:15 Oh, I know he has.
Newell 1:01:15 …on Hugh B Brown. He has gone a lot further than I ever dreamed of going in his biography of Hugh B Brown than I ever had any intention of going to in my little Harold B Lee [biography.]
GT 1:01:29 Well, it’s the one question that the nobody can answer. I know they can’t answer. Because you just talked about how Lee was very adamant about the ban with Hugh B Brown’s granddaughter, but then he buys land that turns out to be for the Brazil Temple. I’m wondering…
Newell 1:01:49 Yeah, that’s a good question you raise.
GT 1:01:52 Did President Kimball repurpose that? Did Lee have other ideas for that land?
Newell 1:01:56 Well, it was going to be, they were going to build a temple. But I guess he figured maybe they could continue to do what they’ve done in the past, continue to try to avoid a baptizing and proselytizing to people that were of questionable lineage. I don’t think he envisioned how the growth of the church would explode in Brazil, because I think Brazil today has the third largest total membership in the entire Church. I think I’m correct on that. I think Mexico is next, and I think Brazil is third. I could be wrong. I haven’t seen the exact demographics on that. But I don’t think anybody anticipated that the Church would grow as fast and rapidly and drive the need to lift the ban in 1978. Because Lee dies in 1974, and the ban is lifted in 1978. I just wonder if Lee really anticipated that the growth would be in the direction that it was. Because up till that time, they had been very careful in making sure they could trace the lineage outside the country.
GT 1:03:18 The whole issue back in 1965 with Nigeria…
Newell 1:03:21 Yeah.
GT 1:03:21 And Lee was adamantly opposed to even sending missionaries there.
Newell 1:03:25 He could see that would opened a whole Pandora’s box, because the whole issue there was, who’s going to supervise and run these congregations? Are they going to have to keep sending whites down there to run these congregations? Lee could see that, unlike Brazil, where you have more of a mixed population and could rely more on native membership, you couldn’t do that in Nigeria, because it’s almost entirely a black African nation. So, I think that’s why he was so [opposed.] Because he’d say, “This is going to open up the need to give them the priesthood,” and he didn’t want that at all.
GT 1:04:09 So it’s interesting, because you say he wasn’t your classic racist.
Newell 1:04:13 No, not in the same category as Bruce R. McConkie or Mark E. Petersen, or even Joseph Fielding Smith, who really had this myopic view of race as a doctrine within the Church.
GT 1:04:31 Lee was just more of an institutionalist.
Newell 1:04:33 Yeah.
GT 1:04:34 This is the way we’ve done things. We’re going to keep doing it the same way.
Newell 1:04:36 Yeah, and maintain the orthodoxy of practices and beliefs. Because I think he would have said a lot more on the race issue, because I would even include in that more racist category, Ezra Taft Benson. Because the scary thing is, the successor after Lee. Because Kimball was in questionable health. He’d had all of this heart surgery. He had had throat cancer. Kimball was sure that he was going to pre-decease Lee. And if that had been the case, [if] Lee had lived on for another 5-10 years, Ezra Taft Benson would have become president of the Church. And there’s no way on God’s earth that Benson, I mean, given his attitudes and behavior with regard to race, that Benson would have lifted the ban.
GT 1:05:35 But, it is interesting to me that Benson was the one who called the first black General Authority, Helvicio Martins.
Newell 1:05:42 Yeah, well, by that time, the ban had been lifted. I mean, he didn’t lift the ban, but the ban had been lifted, and now it was part of the Church canon.
GT 1:05:54 I wonder how much Hinckley and Monson had to do with that. Any ideas?
Newell 1:05:58 I don’t know. I mean, Matt has done the definitive work on Benson as well. And Benson, he was a whole different breed of animal. His ideology was driven by this strong conspiratorial John Birch ideology. I mean, the whole family, including his two sons and wife, were members of the John Birch Society. And Benson, himself, was a strong sympathizer. Benson, as you’re aware, he wanted to run on the racist 1968, American Independent Party ticket with George Wallace. He kept on trying to get permission from David O. McKay to do that. So, that tells you where he stands on race, the fact that he’s willing to run with a blatant racist on a third-party ticket in 1968. Even before that, they tried to form their own very, ultra conservative John Birch political party called the Spirit of ‘76 Party, where he would be the presidential candidate, and Strom Thurmond, an absolute hardcore segregationist to be his vice presidential running mate. So, as I say, if Lee had lived a few more years, and let’s say Spencer W. Kimball had died, sooner than Lee…
GT 1:07:36 Or even if he lived through to 1985 when Kimball did die, Benson was next.
Newell 1:07:40 Yeah, he was next, and he was in there until 1990, right. And so, who comes after?
GT 1:07:45 President Hunter.
Newell 1:07:46 Yeah, Hunter comes after Benson. So, I feel it would have taken another 10, 15, 20 years if the Church was going to move in that direction. And it wouldn’t have been under either Lee or Benson. It wouldn’t have been under either one of those.
GT 1:08:04 You talk more about Benson, because you and Craig Foster have the book on…
Newell 1:08:04 Right, Mormon Quest for the Presidency.
GT 1:08:04 Right. So, if people want to check that out.
Newell 1:08:04 Yeah, that’s where we got into Benson. I did a subsequent article on Benson, that was part of Matt Harris’s anthology [that], he did. Matt did two works. He did the more narrative history overview. Then, he did an anthology. And I’ve got an essay in there that I updated.
GT 1:08:37 Thunder From the Right.
Newell 1:08:38 Yeah, Thunder From the Right. I’ve got an essay in there, in which I found additional information, showing how closely linked Benson was to the John Birch Society, and how he was so politically ambitious. He wanted to be President of the United States. There’s no question about it. And that’s the argument that I made, because I found more evidence to support how hard driven he was in his political [life] He had what I call Potomac fever.
Peterson Wanted Bush Exed
GT 1:09:05 All right. Well, one last thing I thought I would talk about before I let you go. And this isn’t really so much to do with Lee, but I found it interesting. Mark E. Petersen wanted Lester Bush excommunicated. Can you tell us more about that story?
Newell 1:09:24 Well, I don’t know a lot of detail in it. As I say, it was just a passing thing. And I guess it was J. Willard Marriott who was the president of the stake in which Lester Bush was a member. I guess he resisted doing that. I guess he was able to survive. I mean, J. Willard Marriott is a pretty prominent guy.
GT 1:09:51 Yeah.
Newell 1:09:52 And money talks, and I think influenced them, because he was much more influential than Mark E. Petersen, who was a Mormon apostle. Outside of Utah and the Mormon Church, who has heard of Mark E. Petersen? So, I think that Marriott was wise enough to resist doing that, from what I’ve been able [learn.] I don’t have a lot of information on that. But that’s the conclusion I’ve come to. But, as part of the anger that was felt toward Lester Bush, is a wonderfully researched essay that really influenced my scholarship. I really owe him a debt of gratitude for [what he’s done. It’s sad, because he was a practicing, active Latter-day Saint, and all that Lester Bush was trying to do, if you read his article very carefully, he was trying to get the Church to acknowledge that the black priesthood ban was not linked to essential Mormon practices or doctrine.
Newell 1:11:11 I mean, the way he wrote that article, he downplays the ideas that I developed in my own study, that there was an element of racial identity, ethnic whiteness, and all of that. Paul Reeve has subsequently built on, and that other scholars have built on. But what Lester Bush did in his article, he downplays this idea that black priesthood denial was never really a part of essential Mormon doctrine or belief. Because what’s notably omitted from Lester Bush’s article, [there’s] no mention, whatsoever, of the ideas in the Book of Mormon, of darkness, of blackness being a divine curse. That was the elephant in the room that he never acknowledged in his study. I felt, if you’re going to talk about the development of Mormon racial attitudes toward blacks, you’ve got to talk about what racial attitudes were toward American Indians, because there’s an overlap there. He didn’t mention the Book of Mormon at all. And that was part of his larger scheme, because he felt if he could leave out the Book of Mormon and de-emphasize the some of the racist statements that were made by early church leaders and say, “Well, they were their opinions. They really didn’t reflect a central Church doctrine.”
GT 1:12:33 Did that save him from excommunication?
Newell 1:12:36 Well, it was Lester Bush’s modus operandi, which he was trying to [do.] It’s kind of nuanced in his article. He felt if they read that, they will realize that they can lift the ban, and it won’t violate essential Mormon doctrines or practices. That was his agenda. He wanted to get the Church to lift the ban, by acknowledging it was started by Brigham Young, and that Joseph Smith ordained at least one or two early blacks; and that Joseph Smith’s, statements really did–there was no evidence at all that he said that blacks could not hold the priesthood. There was no evidence whatsoever. He [Lester Bush] felt that the Church had an out. So, I think he was absolutely shocked and floored when the reaction was just the opposite on the part of Harold Lee, and other Church leaders. Harold Lee, immediately, has his god-awful essay that he’d written back in 1945, Birthright of a Noble Youth.
GT 1:13:55 Youth of a Noble Birthright.
Newell 1:13:56 Youth of a Noble Birthright, republished in a volume that was issued in 19–, right after Bush’s book came out.
GT 1:14:08 That was in 1973?
Newell 1:14:09 Yeah, yeah. Early ’73. I guess it was ’73. Yeah, the year that he died. Because he died in December.
Lee’s Health Problems/Death
GT 1:14:19 Yeah. Can you talk about his death and what led up to his death? Because it sounds like he had a lot of health problems.
Newell 1:14:25 Yes, I mean…
GT 1:14:26 That weren’t well-known at the time.
Newell 1:14:28 He perhaps suffered from what I would call the JFK Syndrome. He appeared to look a lot healthier and vigorous than he really was. Because throughout his life, he continued to have various health problems. Part of those were the result of whatever ailments that he had inherent, but, also, that he was so hard driven. He had to be doing stuff all the time. He was very devoted to his callings and so on, and he drove himself to the point where it complicated his health problems even further. So, he continued to have problems with ulcers, with various other ailments. So, even up to the time of his death, he appeared to be a lot healthier than he really was. People kept telling him, “You need to slow down. You’re endangering your health,” various people around him, I talk about that in the book. He refused to. He said, “I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do. I’ve only got so much time to do it.” I mean, he was just a hard-driven individual. And that’s why he was so accomplished was because he was pushing himself to the max all the time. And, finally, it caught up with him. I guess it was a major heart failure. He’d had close calls before, a number of close calls, which I describe in the book, itself. Because I think the health issue was really something that was mentioned in the earlier biographies, but I think it was more of a problem throughout his life than is generally acknowledged. You could say that he, virtually, wore out his body by the time he was in his early 70s. The final illness that took him, took him in a matter of hours. I mean, it was the day after Christmas. They rushed him to the hospital, and he’s gone within hours. It’s such a shock, because he was only in his early 70s. When he died, he was the youngest prophet since Joseph Smith.
GT 1:16:47 Well, what are your final thoughts? Because I know you said you approached this with some trepidation. Did you learn to like Brother Lee?
Newell 1:16:55 Well, that’s a good question. I don’t think that I got to like him any better, I’ll put it that way. But I learned to have greater respect for who he was, what he did, and what he accomplished as a seminal Church leader that made the church what it is today, whether for better or for worse. I think a lot of the conservatism, the orthodoxy and everything else, he perpetuated through his successors, through his protegees like Boyd K. Packer, [who] is probably a prominent example. He perpetuated a more conservative Mormonism, and a more efficient Mormonism through the correlation. Those are the two things that I think are his lasting legacy today, as the Church is more conservative, and enforcing a greater conformity of beliefs and practices. Because when I was growing up in the 1950s, during the McKay era, there was more latitude, more willingness to allow for arguments of debate and discussion on controversial aspects of Church doctrines and practices. Whereas today, that is not within the realm of discussion. You go to your meetings, and they give you a set liturgy. You don’t have that same openness. Part of us because of the autonomy of the auxiliaries. I remember my mother, as a Relief Society president, preparing lessons on theology and doctrine that were discussed and debated in her Relief Society classes, and you don’t have that today.
GT 1:18:43 Yeah, that’s for sure.
Newell 1:18:44 It’s much more regimented, I think. I’ll sum it up by quoting, I guess it’s Armand Mauss, one of my favorite people. He goes on to say that “correlation tightened the screws on a potentially errant membership. Centralized control,” and I’m quoting Armand here. “The major aim of the correlation movement caused many church members to question whether there was any room for tolerance and autonomy. While correlation was originally intended to eliminate duplicate and inefficient programs, it ultimately produced a standardized and sanitized,” and I’m quoting here, this is not me, “A sanitized international instructional curriculum in which the intellectual threat was being contained by eliminating intellectual inquiry from Church education.”
GT 1:19:45 That’s what Armand Mauss said.
Newell 1:19:46 Yeah, that’s not me. That’s Armand Mauss.
GT 1:19:51 So sad, he’s gone. I wish I would have gotten to know him better. Well, great. Well, what other projects are you working on Newell?
Newell 1:19:58 Well, currently I’m working an updated study of Eldridge Cleaver. That’s one of the things I’m working on. I gave a paper at MHA. I discovered an unpublished autobiography that Cleaver started to write after he after he became involved with the Church in the early 1980s. It gives a very detailed account of what drew him to the LDS Church, which I found to be something that was absolutely–to me, it was a mind bender. So, I want to do more on how he got involved with the Church.
Newell 1:20:46 He got very involved with W. Cleon Skousen, through the Freedman Institute. It was through personal contacts and interactions with people, who made him feel more than welcome. So, that was what initially drew him into the Church. I’m working on that project. I also, for Sunstone, I got interested with Craig Foster, in looking at my family’s involvement with plural marriage. When I was growing up, my family didn’t talk at all about it. I didn’t realize that they even practiced polygamy. But as I delved into my family history, of which I go back to pioneer roots, go all the way back to Joseph Smith. I found that on both sides of my family, they were deeply involved in plural marriage and even in post-Manifesto plural marriage. I found that this one relative of mine, a great aunt, the older sister, I think she was an older sister of my grandfather from my grandfather’s side, a great aunt got involved in a post-Manifesto, polygamous relationship with a guy named Heber Bennion. Heber Bennion, at the time that he took my aunt as a post-Manifesto wife in 1901 was Bishop of the Taylorsville Ward, an office which he had held for some 20 years. [This was] a major thing.
Newell 1:22:24 I thought, wow. How could he be Bishop? They did it secretly without telling the children of his first family. I think his first wife knew. Ironically enough, Bennion’s first wife was the sister of President of Heber J. Grant’s wife. So, Heber Bennion and President Grant were brother-in-laws when he was taking the second [wife], my great aunt.
GT 1:23:09 Wow.
Newell 1:23:09 I mean, it’s a fascinating story.
GT 1:23:11 And President Grant wanted to stamp this out.
Newell 1:23:13 Yeah, and that is the very time. Grant hadn’t become president of the Church yet, when he [Bennion] commenced this relationship. Because I think it was 1918, when Grant became president of the Church. Anyway, so this Bennion, to keep it secret, he takes my great aunt and they move they move around quite a bit in various communities. They live in Lehi. They live up in Box Elder County. So, he’s moving. This family has seven children with my great aunt. At the time he was 43, and she was just 21.
GT 1:24:00 Oh my goodness.
Newell 1:24:01 So, in the process, I discovered all of this, and it just blew me away. It was an interesting family, because this great aunt and her younger brother, in the same family was named Samuel Bringhurst. He was president of the Swiss mission and became the first president of the Swiss temple. He was the very devout, active Latter-day Saint in the same family. So, I’ve got Samuel Bringhurst. I’ve got Mamie. She is the one that’s married to Bennion. And then there’s another brother who becomes a career criminal. He’s ultimately gets involved in a shootout in California and is executed at San Quentin for killing this policeman in 1924. This all comes out of the same family.
Newell 1:24:54 My grandfather was pretty much of a conventional person. Well, he was just an average hardworking Latter-day Saint, who supported a family of seven children, including my dad. So, the family dynamics just really has fascinated me. I mean, in the same family, you’ve got a post-manifesto polygamist married to a Mormon bishop and you’ve got a career criminal. You’ve got a guy, my great uncle, who is the mission president. He becomes close friends with David O. McKay, when they’re picking out the site for [the Swiss Temple.] If you’ve seen the new volume Saints, the third volume, take a look at the last part. It talks about my great uncle, the one that was the younger brother.
Newell 1:25:48 In studying this family dynamic, eventually the children of the first family find out what their father has been doing. This oldest daughter, she goes ballistic when she finds out that her father–because he was able to keep it a secret from the children in this first family. When she finds out, she goes nuts. She’s just absolutely irate. She, ultimately, becomes disaffected from the Church and everything else. She feels her father has really betrayed her. She starts writing these polemics about how polygamy destroyed my family. She’s got this one memoir. So, it’s interesting. Because my great uncle, the one who is the mission president, tries to comfort her. He writes her letter, saying, “It would have been better for all of us, if this had been kept a secret that this post-Manifesto polygamy took place in our family. It would have spared a lot of heartache and everything else.” He goes on to try to console the half-sister or whatever you want to call her. Or not half-sister, but this shirttail relative about what took place within our family. But he goes on to say, he was a young boy when he found out that his sister comes home pregnant. He goes on to say, “Well, I’ll never forget, when my sister came home pregnant. We thought she had been violated by some scoundrel or something like that.” But then he goes on to say, “When we were told what it actually was, that it was post-Manifesto polygamy, we were told that we had to keep it an absolute secret, or Mamie would go to prison.”
Newell 1:27:42 I mean, as I say, that’s compelling history. That’s my family. As The Godfather would say, “Well, they didn’t always do the right things, but they were my family.”
GT 1:27:56 Well, it’s funny. You’ve done all this work on polygamy and didn’t know this story.
Newell 1:27:59 I didn’t realize that. I’ll give you a copy of my paper, when you leave. Remind me. I’ve got an extra copy. And you can read the full thing of what I wrote at Sunstone.
GT 1:28:08 Oh, cool.
Newell 1:28:08 You’ll find it interesting, I think.
GT 1:28:11 Well, cool.
Newell 1:28:12 Well, I probably said more than I should.
GT 1:28:15 Oh, you’re great. You’re great. Do you have any last thoughts before I let you go?
Newell 1:28:19 I’ll actually be honest with you. I’ve enjoyed the intellectual stimulation that takes place in your podcast.
GT 1:28:29 Thank you.
Newell 1:28:19 I really appreciate the way that you handle Gospel Tangents because you not only bring out information that I probably intend to bring out, but you bring out discussion and dialogue, which maybe takes it along. I guess that’s why you call it Gospel Tangents, because you get going on these interesting tangents and discussing issues that might not already be discussed. That’s why I always enjoy doing Gospel Tangents.
GT 1:28:58 Well, thank you. You’re one of my favorites Newell. All right. Thank you so much for being on Gospel Tangents. I really appreciate it.
Check out our other interviews with Newell Bringhurst.
Craig Foster & Newell Bringhurst have combined to write 4 books: 3 on polygamy and 1 on Mormon Presidential Candidates.
Polygamy & Priesthood/Temple Ban
Growth of Fundamentalist Mormons in the early 20th century
Decline of FLDS
2 Largest Polygamist Groups: AUB & Independents
Mormon Quest for the Presidency
Why Polygamy/D&C 132 Can’t be Decanonized
Dating the Fanny Alger Affair
Polygamy from Martyrdom to Manifesto 1844-1890
Newell Bringhurst – Author of Saints, Slaves, and Blacks
Dr. Newell Bringhurst, author of several books on Mormon Histor
135: Critiquing the Gospel Topics Essays
134: Role of Women in 4 American Religions
133: More about Polygamy: Bennett, Bushman, & Compton
132: Bringhurst’s Approach to Controversy
131: Bringhurst on Bushman-Brodie
130: Walker Lewis: Faithful Black Elder
129: Warner McCary: Real Native Genius?
128: How Lester Bush Debunked the Missouri Thesis
127: Writing Saints, Slaves, and Blacks
Matt Harris on Ezra Taft Benson
Part 2 of our conversation with Dr. Matt Harris from CSU-Pueblo. This time we discuss the political and spiritual life of Ezra Taft Benson.
255: Hoover on MLK & ETB
254: How Hinckley Prevailed over Benson on Civil Rights
253: The End of Benson’s Political Aspirations
252: Benson on Civil Rights & Communism
251: Benson and John Birch Society
250: How Ezra Taft Benson Joined Eisenhower
Critiquing the LDS Gospel Topics Essays
Dr. Newell Bringhurst (left) & Dr. Matt Harris are co-editors of “The LDS Gospel Topics Series.”
459: Remembering Armand Mauss
458: Race, Priesthood, & Randy Bott
457: Racism in Mormon Scripture
456: Pros & Cons of Race Essay
455: Critiquing Polygamy Essays & Sources
454: Are Gospel Essays Hidden or Public?
453: Swedish Rescue & Gospel Topics Essays
 Her name was Lynne Wilson. She has a Ph.D. in Theology and American Religious History from Marquette University.
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