Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Neal A. Maxwell, Walter Jackson Bate, and Brigham Young: The Moral Purpose of Mormon Biography

Since childhood I continue to read with eager haste the biographical record of early Mormonism. The reading has built faith and, together with the Holy Scriptures and the teachings of living prophets, has helped convert my soul to the Lord. In these biographies, when good and true, I have found "the always heartening union of achievement with the familiar" (Walter Jackson Bate, John Keats, 2).

Advice to writers suggests writing on what one knows best; the advice applies to readers also. And such reading serves a moral purpose. Of course, "We have a natural hunger to learn what qualities of mind or character, and what incidents in a man's life, encourage--or at least permit--an achievement so compelling when, at the same time, so little is apparently given at the start." "The interest is thus deeply human and moral, and in the most capacious sense of both of these words" (Walter Jackson Bate, 2).

Such hunger to learn--and the learning is a moral quest--has its pitfalls. According to the gifted Walter Jackson Bate, we approach greatness with two fears. First comes the fear that all that is great in the world has already been accomplished; then follows the thought of it being "utterly impossible to imitate" the hero "in any thing" (Bate citing Johnson, 35). Yet the very act of reading the right sort of biography can quell both fears such that "Whatever our usual preoccupations, in approaching such figures we become more open to what Johnson thought the first aim of biography--to find what can be 'put to use'" (Bate, 2).

And what can the young Latter-day Saint reader "put to use" from the lives of the prophets and pioneers whose names he already knows so well? (There must be a few Latter-day Saint virtues.) Here I recall the way in which Preston Nibley chose to sum up his biography of the second prophet of our dispensation: "HE BELIEVED." Faith can always be "put to use"--and that makes of any biographer someone having almost endless capacity to do good: "I have been astounded by the strength of this man's faith; such faith I have never encountered in any other person" (Preston Nibley, Brigham Young: The Man and His Work, 539). We all recall Brigham Young's assertion: " 'Mormonism' has made me all that I am" (JD 8:162, Widstoe, Discourses of Brigham Young, 451). Whatever we are, we also can believe and become whatever Mormonism may make of us.

Any young reader hopes to share in the deeds of the great. Yet in the very moment of aspiration, deflation sets in: Who can match their deeds, their virtues? Here is where--and not a moment before--the words of Johnson fruitfully come to use. Confronting the "utterly impossible to imitate in any thing," "The sacred writers (he observed) related the vicious as well as the virtuous actions of men; which had this moral effect, that it kept mankind from despair" (Bates citing Johnson, 35).

Note it well: the very act of relating even the vicious is intended to produce a "moral effect" urging the reader forward in the paths of king or prophet, though none himself. Turning to the Bible, we find David, though exemplar of virtue, yet caught in the vicious. And Peter? Here is no king: the record relates a quite ordinary soul of impetuosity, temper, jealousy, and inconsistency. Indeed, the man possessed but a sole virtue: "HE BELIEVED." And Christ then made of Peter the Apostle all that he was, that is to say, all that we wonder at in the Acts of the Apostles. Other scriptural greats somehow escape the taint of the vicious: James and John stand to perfection despite being sons of Boanerges; Joseph has no fault; Moses stands near perfect (though Aaron knows flaws). There are human moments but not a jot of vice. Appears, in lightning flash, one rather primal personality. Despairing Elijah, both troubler of Israel and the paradigmatic prophet of "like passions," is suddenly swept to heaven. (And, as I was always taught at home, Who would not gladly exchange their own reward in heaven for the throne of Elijah or the crown of Brigham Young?)

Commenting to his own biographer--who worked under instructions to be candid--Elder Neal A. Maxwell said: "It isn't that we're searching for weakness as much as we are for growth" (Bruce C. Hafen, A Disciple's Life: The Biography of Neal A. Maxwell, xv). The same apostle often related how Prophet and President Lorenzo Snow: "meekly but instructively, said of the Prophet's imperfections [Joseph Smith]: When I saw the weaknesses and imperfections in him I thanked God that He would put upon a man who had these imperfections the power and authority which he placed upon him. . . for I knew I myself had weakness and I thought there was a chance for me" (The Collected Works of Neal A. Maxwell, 6:1:118). "A chance for me"--Johnson could not have stated it better. Lorenzo Snow, says Elder Maxwell with an inimitable allusive grace, "viewed others graciously and charitably as if through the 'windows of heaven'" (3:2:89). While we might not with justification write hagiographically, whatever the word really means, perhaps we can write sainthood into our own souls.

As compelling as biography, and perhaps more so, is to have the privilege of knowing, or at least of seeing and hearing, the great men and women of our own day, faults or not. (We're talking prophetic faults here.) Elder Maxwell, in his turn, "meekly but instructively" approaches a contemporary prophet: "I found President Lee to be personally kind, and yet very tough-minded intellectually. Because he knew the gospel to be true, he was fearlessly confrontive. This also permitted him to deal with institutional and personal feedback from a position of security" (L. Brent Goates, ed., He Changed My Life, 239). Again: "In my relationship with him, I found him to be kind and to be an unusually perceptive listener, for what reasons I am not certain. Thus, when I was around him, I felt completely secure rather than anxious. Others, as reported, may have had a different experience" (239). And who would not rather listen to Neal Maxwell's creative and articulate speech than to some grumbling functionary or embittered soul?

"I can truly say," wrote Brigham Young, "that I invariably found [Joseph Smith] to be all that any people could require a true prophet to be, and that a better man could not be, though he had his weaknesses; and what man has ever lived upon this earth who had none?" (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young, Brigham Young to David P. Smith, June 1, 1853, 343). President George Q. Cannon, another latter-day apostle, had the privilege of knowing well Brigham Young: "To describe my feelings upon the death of this man of God, whom I loved so much and who had always treated me with such kindness and affection, is impossible. He was in my eyes as perfect a man as I ever knew. I never desired to see his faults; I closed my eyes to them. To me he was a Prophet of God, the head of the dispensation on the earth, holding the keys under the Prophet Joseph, and in my mind there clustered about him, holding this position, everything holy and sacred and to be revered" (Davis Bitton, George Q. Cannon, 212). Davis Bitton had no need to include this gracious assessment of Brigham Young into an already overly long biography of Brother Cannon. That he chose to do so says a lot about Bitton's sense of the purpose and tradition of Mormon history as we have received it. There is more: "The thought that ever with me was: If I criticize, or find fault with, or judge Brother Brigham, how far shall I go?" (Bitton citing Cannon, 212). And even more: "And in contemplating that life, it seems to me perfect. In my eyes and to my feelings he was as perfect a man as could be in mortality" (210). What could Brother Bitton have been thinking? Yet his book will last.

Brigham Young's own daughter, Susa Young Gates, has left for the curious a short recital of papa's faults, faults that something call to mind Martin Luther or the endearing wizard, Gandalf:

He had some character-weaknesses": "He was easily prejudiced, and it was difficult to change his opinions when once they were formed. Then he could be sarcastic, but never spiteful. On provocation, he was sometimes very angry, but never with tempestuous explosion or rude haste." (It enraged Brother Brigham when his boys broke windows spraying glass into rooms where small children were at play.) Then: "Those who posed as reformers towards him and his people, who would destroy the Church and Kingdom of God, and especially if they were themselves 'whited sepulchres' he hated with a passion that often vented itself in violent speech." Note: "his family, who heard never an unrefined word from his lips, were nevertheless not shocked [!] when he denounced or even cursed in the pulpit the renegades who sometimes manifested their filthy bitterness to women and children not only in the streets, but a few times at least in their public addresses (Susa Young Gates and Leah D. Widtsoe, The Life Story of Brigham Young, New York MacMillan Co., 1931, 317).

Herein lies the substance of the errors at once overlooked by Brother Cannon. And we again call to mind what Elder Neal A. Maxwell says of President Harold B. Lee: "Because he knew the gospel to be true, he was fearlessly confrontive." ("I love to fight the devils, but I love to overcome them," Brigham Young, JD 3:224; "I will never cease to contend, inch by inch, until we gain the ground and possess the Kingdom," JD 8:166.) Besides, how many of Brother Brigham's public displays of tough words and acts might be seen as a going-out-on-a-limb for the Kingdom, rather than as personal failing and character flaw. Elijah was never polite to Ahab.

As for Brother Brigham's view of others' faults, or of his own:

He said little about his faults, or about other's faults. Once he rebuked his daughter for relating in detail one of her own character weaknesses. 'Don't do that,' he said. 'If you were holding a fort against an enemy, you wouldn't get up in a gap in the wall and shout, Here is a hole, climb in here!' (Gates and Widtsoe, 318).

Too many Latter-day Saints clamber up to the yelling gap today.

We have spoken of weakness--of prophets sharing 'like passions"--yet there are powerful virtues all too easy to overlook, including virtues "impossible" for me to reach.

I like the way in which Brigham Young simply moved on:

"Brigham Young went always on his calm, deliberate way. . ."

(Gates and Widtsoe, 316).

Church History Library
September 11, 2012