Saturday, May 31, 2008

J.R. Simplot: 1909-2008

J.R. Simplot, formerly the worlds oldest and Idaho’s only billionaire has died at the age of 99, his funeral is tomorrow. Simplot was an irascible fellow, a self made man who had a remarkable ability to anticipate and take advantage of economic change. He provided Potato’s for the armed forces during the second world war, and after the war was a pioneer in frozen foods. His contract to provide tatters for McDonalds of course proved extremely profitable. J.R. even got in on the tech boom by investing in Micron Technology back during the Carter years, Micron is now Idaho’s largest private employer (my dad works for them). Simplot was also an avowed atheist, which I think makes him just that much more interesting. He was also in great health for his age, on the day he died he had scheduled a Gin game with friends.

My major memory of Simplot occurred in elementary school. It was 1990 and all us local grade school students were bused down to the BSU for a major guest speaker. That speaker was to have been then president George H. W. Bush, but as this was the run-up period to the first Gulf War and he ended up canceling last minute. J.R. Simplot stepped in an gave a rambling talk which for some reason really stuck with me. I wasn’t doing very well in school at the time and the fact the Simplot, who never graduated High School, could become a Billionaire really gave me hope. For the record though J.R. didn’t recommend his course action to the youth, but rather advocated getting a good education.

Fun Fact: Simplot donated his famous house, situated atop ‘Simplot Hill’ a popular ice blocking location, to the state as its new Governors mansion. The ironic thing is that the first Governor to inhabit it (when renovations are finished) will be Butch Otter, his ex-son in law.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Most Important Mormons of the 20th Century

The Folks over at By Common Consent attempt to whittle down the ten most important Mormons of the 20th Century. Of course this list is confined to LDS Mormon, so influential folks in other Mormon communities like paradigm changing RLDS President W. Wallace Smith, and popularizer of Polygamist Fundamentalism Joseph White Musser are left out. However the list complied I would have to agree with. If forced to I’d list James E. Talamage as the most influential Mormon of the 1st half of the Twentieth Century and Harold B. Lee as the most important of the second. Both where systemizes who codified church doctrinal (Talamage) and organizational (Lee) structures. The most important Mormon of the 20th Century overall was probably Church President David O. McKay, who put a face on Mormonism that broke firmly from the “19th Century Weirdness" and saw Church membership increase two fold during his roughly 19 years as President. I'd put Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie in second place for most influential Mormons of the 1st and 2nd half of the 20th Century respectively. But hey those are my opinions, I encourage you to take a look at the list.

Mormons and Presidents: Lincoln - A. Johnson

#16 Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865)

Winders book contains loads of information regarding Lincoln’s unusually long association with the Saints (see pages 105-109 for a summary there of), an association brought about largely by the fact that Lincoln hailed from Illinois (1). Lincoln wrote of the Mormons arrival in Illinois during the winter of 1838-1839. Sometime prior to March 1st 1840 the future president meet Joseph Smith, most likely on one of the formers trips to the state capital of Springfield, where Abe was a lawyer and sometimes state legislator (2). Lincoln voted for the ratification of the liberal Nauvoo City charter (3) in December of 1840, though according to historian Larry Schweikart in his paper "The Mormon Connection: Lincoln, the Saints, and the Crises of Equality", Lincoln "Helped cites like Nauvoo as a matter of course."(4) John C. Bennett, the first mayor of Nauvoo and one of the more notorious characters in Mormon history (5), wrote the following in the local paper Times and Seasons around the time of the ratification of the charter:

" ... and here I should not forget to mention that Lincoln... had the magnanimity to vote for our act, and came forward after the final vote to the bar of the House and congratulated me on its passage." (6)

Lincoln lived in the same Springfield boarding house that Apostle Willard Richards briefly lived in during the winter of 1842, it is likely that they dinned and conversed together during that time. Mary Todd Lincoln attended an extradition hearing for Joseph Smith during January 1843, it was held in the Tinsley Buildling, the same building were Lincoln’s law office was then housed.

After the Mormons largely evacuated Illinois in the mid 1840's, Lincoln would have little occasion for interaction with, or presumably discussion about, the Mormons until 1857 and his historic run against Stephan Douglas for a seat in the U. S. Senate. Negative feels towards the Latter-day Saints still prevailed among many in the state, and the candidates attitudes towards them undoubtedly became an issue. Douglas had been friendly towards the Mormons during his service as a judge in the 1840's, Joseph Smith even had him as a dinner guest at his private residence and there uttered what Latter-day Saints regard as a prophecy, here paraphrased from memory: "Mr. Douglas, you will one day aspire for high public office, even that of the President of the United States; but if you ever turn your back against this people, the light of the Lord will be withdrawn from you and you will lose." Which of course Douglas did, losing to Lincoln when he ran as the Northern Democratic candidate in the contentious, four way race of 1860. Many Mormons regard Douglas loss of the presidency as being sealed by his criticismof the Saints during the 1857 Senate race, which ironically he won. Lincoln tired to tie his oponite to the Mormons by arguing that if Douglas supported the concept of popular sovergnty in regards to slavery, he should logically do the same in regards to polygamy.

In 1860 Apostle Wilford Woodruff records in his diary Brigham Young mentioning his desire that Lincoln win the election. While President Lincoln would routinely bypass the governor of Utah Territory and deal directly with President Young in regards to affairs related to the region. This included 1862 instructions for Young to raise a small "calvary" to protect the telegraph lines from the Indians after federal troops were withdrawn from the territory to fight in the Civil War. Lincoln would also head the petitions of the Saints, presumably through Young, to remove hostile territorial Governor Stephan S. Harding from office in 1863, he was replaced by the more "discreet" Governor James Duane Doty. After Lincoln’s assassination a day of morning would be declared in Salt Lake City, with local businesses closed and a memorial service held in the "Old Tabernacle" (7).

Lincoln’s policy however were not abashidly "pro-Mormon" though by any means. He refused to take a strong position on Utah statehood, and signed into law America’s first major piece of anti-polygamy legislation, The Morrill Act of 1862, though he generally declined to actively enforce it (8). Lincoln’s policy toward the Mormons was however largely well received by the group. It was sometimes dubbed Lincoln’s "Three Word Policy": "Let Them Alone". The socially prominent Mormon T. B. H. Stenhouse records in a letter to Brigham Young, Lincoln’ sharing the following, oft quoted anticdot with him during a meeting in 1863:

"Stenhouse, when I was a boy on the farm in Illinois there was a great deal of timber on the farm which we had to clear away. Occasionally we would come to a log which had fallen down. It was too hard to split, too wet to burn, and too heavy to move, so we plowed around it. You go back and tell Brigham Young that if he will let me alone I will let him alone." (9)

In closing Apostle George Q. Cannon offers the following observations on Lincoln, with whom he had an audience (as a representative of the Utah territory) in Washington D.C. in 1862:

"The President has a plain, but shrewd and rather pleasant face. He is very tall, probably 6 feet 4 inches high, and is rather awkwardly built, heightened by this want of flesh. He looks much better than I had expected he would do from my knowledge of the cares and labors of his position, and is quite humorous, scarcely permitting a visit to pass without uttering some joke. He received us very kindly and without formality. Conversed some little upon Utah affairs and other matters." (10)

In short, Mormons pretty much like Lincoln, like most Americans. (11)

Fun Facts:

Lincoln once checked out a copy The Book of Mormon from the Library of Congress.

The President has been cited over 200 times in General Conference Addresses.

During the nations bicentennial in 1976 the LDS First Presidency encouraged Church members
to read Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation: "God Rules in the Affairs of Men".

On what would have been his 100th Birthday in 1909, President Lincoln had the sealing ordinance performed for him by former Apostle Matthias Cowley, he was sealed both to his wife Mary Todd, and in a node to Mormon polygamy, his "former sweetheart" Ann Mayes Rutledge, who had died before the two could get married. (12)

Andrew Johnson (1865-1869)

This President had virtually no interaction with the Mormons while in office, though he received some as visitors (including John W. Young, a son of Brigham’ and future councilor in the First Presidency), and was regarded by Utah’s territorial representative at the time, William H. Hooper, as of a friendly disposition towards the saints. (13)

1. President Lincoln was born in Kentucky but spent much of his life in Illinois.

2. Lincoln mentions this in a letter to a political associate, in which he advocates courting the Mormon vote.

3. The Nauvoo City character of 1840 gave the Mormon dominated local government sweeping powers and a great deal of autonomy, to the point that the city during Joseph’s life time has been compared to a veritable city state.

4. Winder pg. 110.

5. Bennett was the Church’s chief lobbyist on the matter of the Nauvoo charter. An outsider who quickly gained the trust of Joseph Smith and rose to prominence in the local community both civically and ecclesasticly. Bennett would later be involved in an apparent assassination attempt on Joseph Smith. He is also credited with introducing the term "spiritual wifery" in Mormon discourse, as a kind of code for his understanding of polygamy, and was accused of, among other things, being a bisexual and abandoning a wife and child back east. Bennett would turn against the Mormons and write and lecture against them, though for a brief time he reassociated himself with the movement, in the form of James Strang’s splinter sect which arouse, and briefly flourished, following the martyrdom of Joseph Smith in 1844.

6. Cited in Winder page 110, from Times and Seasons 2:267, in turn quoted from Nibley’s Brigham Young: The Man and His Work.

7. Predecessor to the famed domed tabernacle of today, which was completed a short time later.
8. I think it safe to say Lincoln had bigger things on his plate.

9. This quote can be found in Arrington and Bitton’s The Mormon Experience, the Ostlings Mormon America, and various other places.

10. Found in Bitton’s biography George Q. Cannon.

11. To find ‘modern’ Americans who don’t much care for Lincoln, simply flip through the pages of Southern Partisan Magazine.

12. This is ironic because the whole reason Cowley was a "former Apostle" was his dogmatic insistence on the centrality of polygamy in Mormon doctrine and practice, at a time when the Church was trying to move beyond much of its "19th Century Weirdness", into something more compatible with the American mainstream.

13. On my LDS mission to eastern Tennessee I once visited the Andrew Johnson historical park in Greenville, listened to a short Fred Thompson narrated documentary and visited the Presidents grave.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Mormons and Presidents: Fillmore - Buchanan

After a protracted absence I consent to continue the Mormons and the President’s series.

#13 Millard Fillmore (1850-1853)

I have long regarded the extent to which the Latter-day Saints yoked themselves to the political fortunes of this now comicly unimportant president, with some degree of amusement. Fillmore was the chief executive who made Utah a territory and took the political risk of appointing Brigham Young its first Governor, though this latter decision was made in part because no one else really wanted the job, and politically influential Mormon allie Thomas L. Kane had vouched safe for Young’s moral character. In appreciation it was decreed that the new territorial capital would be named Fillmore and situated in a county to be called Millard. This was part of an ultimately short lived effort to situate the capital in a location more central to the geography of the state then Salt Lake. A surprisingly ambitious capital building was begun in Fillmore but ultimately scaled back and turned over to other civic uses, it still stands today, and the town remains the county seat for Millard.

Though comical the political alliance between Fillmore and the Mormons is in many ways logical. The future president grew up in Monrovia situated in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, not fifty miles from the Smith family farm just outside Palmyra. It was remarked by at least one newspaper (1) that Smith and Fillmore were of similar political dispositions. Fillmore may have also seen the Mormons as potential allies against two groups with whom he felt at political and cultural odds, the Masons and the Catholics. Ultimately Fillmore failed to gain his own parties nomination for President in 1852, though he later ran under the third party banner of the ‘American Party’, popularly known as “Know Nothings”. Fillmore of course only became president because of the unexpected death of Zachary Taylor, he had been chosen as vice president as a ticket balancer, though he the General would come to clash politically during his short tenure in the number two spot. Fillmore continues to be looked on favorably by the Latter-day Saint community to this day.

# 14 Franklin Pierce (1853-1857)

The lest written about American president doesn’t provide me with much material to write about in regards to his relationship with the Mormons. According to Winder’s book the only issue of note to transpire between the president and the Church during Pierce’s signal term was the matter of Brigham Young’s retention in the office of Governor. Pierce originally sought to replace Young with a Colonel Edward J. Steptoe, who he covertly sent to Utah for that purpose. But upon his arrival Steptoe was so impressed with Young’s handling of the office, and the degree of loyalty by which he was all but universally regarded in the populace, that the Colonel joined the territories few other “gentile” government appointees in lobbying for Young’s retention in the office. There were one or two other not very serious scares that political pressure would force Pierce to remove Brigham Young from the governorship, but they of course came to not. Apostle and future Church president John Taylor meet with President Pierce in Washington shortly before he left office in 1857.

#15 James Buchanan (1857-1861)

Although also obscure by today’s standards, James Buchanan is as derided by the Mormons as Millard Fillmore is respected. Although he defeated John C. Freemont, the first candidate of the adamantly anti-polygamy Republican party (2), in the election of 1856, events early in Buchanan’s administration would turn the tide of Mormon opinion against him.

Some federal appointees to the Utah territory, feeling slighted and that there power in the ‘theocratic’ territory was purely cosmetic, left their posts for the east and spread allegations that Brigham Young was raising an army with which he intended to form an independent kingdom. This apparently authoritive validation of a fear many in America had held in regards to the Mormons since their settlement in Utah, roused President Buchanan to send the largest peace time military force in American history to oust Young from office, place former Augusta Mayor Alfred Cumming in that position, and secure the territory by force if necessary.

Word of this expeditionary force under the command of General Albert Sidney Johnston (3), reached Brigham Young as he was conducting a commemorative celebration of the Mormons arriving in the valley exactly ten years earlier. Martial law was quickly declared, missionaries called home from over seas, and massive plans for both evacuations and armed resistance made. With the Mormon collective experience of persecution and expulsion from Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois, a siege mentality prevailed, one only exacerbated by the militant religious revival known as ‘the Mormon Reformation’ begun by First Presidency member Jedediah M. Grant the year before. While Mormon gorilla tactics employed in delaying Johnston’s Army through the winter, combined with diplomatic negations allowed for the crises (alternately named the “Utah” and the “Mormon” War) to end peacefully with Cummings (4) installation as governor, it did not alas prevent the occurrence of the notorious 'Mountain Meadow Massacre' in southern Utah late that summer.

The relationship between Buchanan and the Saints would never be repaired, even his vicarious rite of proxy baptism would be delayed for a great many years after his death. Indeed the whole episode of “Buchanan’s Blunder” would set the tone of Mormon relations with the U.S. government for decades to come. Interestingly Buchanan claimed to see the issue not as a religious one, but rather solely confined to the alleged seditions of the Utah people (who he later “pardoned”). Said the president:

“With the religious opinions of the Mormons, as long as they remained mere opinions, however deplorable in themselves and revolting to the moral and religious sentiments of all Christendom, I had no right to interfere.” (5) So obviously Buchanan did have some religious issues with the Saints, but what establishment American didn’t at that time? (6)

President Brigham Young‘s opinion of President Buchanan would lower over the course of the next four years, I quote three examples of the Church leaders statements on the man over that period, each found and cited between pages 96 and 101 of Winders book.:

1857, during the crises:

“James Buchanan… is naturally a passive, docile, benevolent, and good man- that is his disposition, I will venture. <> The President hearkens to the clamor around him; and, as did Pontius Pilate, in the case of Jesus Christ, has washed his hands, saying, ‘I am clear of the blood of those Latter-day Saints.’”

Around 1858, after the ‘pardon':

“… I thank President Buchanan for forgiving me, but I really cannot tell what I’ve done.”

Mocking Buchanan while he served as a lame duck president, just weeks before Lincolns inauguration in 1861:

“The administration of King James Buchanan, what an administration! What is the difficulty with King James? His high position and exalted opinion of himself so addled and bewildered him, that he said, ’I am the greatest man in the nation! I am the Chief Magistrate!!”

So in conclusion, Mormons don’t like James Buchanan very much, but honestly neither does anybody else. (7)

1. Erie Observer (Erie, PA), 23 March 1844. Cited page 86 of Presidents and Prophets.

2. The Republican Party was founded in Wisconsin in 1854 with a platform that called for the obliteration of the “twin relics of barbarism” polygamy and slavery.

3. Johnston, later a Confederate General, was killed in the battle of Shiloh in 1862.

4. Cumming would actually prove to be a popular and fair Governor, he would leave office in 1861 to return to Georgia at the start of the Civil War.

5. Buchanan, The Works of James Buchanan, 10:152. Cited in Winder page 102.

6. Thomas L. Kane, who was part of the negotiating team that ended the crises.


Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Singles 2nd Ward (2007)

Belated sequel to the film that essential started the ‘Mormon comedy’ genera. Basically a ‘meet the in-laws’ type story, Kirby Hayborn’s character most cope with his bride-to-be’s wealthy, divorced, non-Mormon parents, so its both culture and class clash. Though Full of the requisite Mormon in-humor, this movie would be not quite as incomprehensible to non-members as the original. In the end the Mormon belief system is validated while the culture lightly prodded, which is pretty much what Latter-day Saints like in their nitch comedies. Three out of Five.