Sterling M. McMurrin was a well-known intellectual and professor
at the University of Utah from the 1940's to the 1980's. He served
as U.S. Commissioner of Education under President John F. Kennedy.
In his work with the Aspen Institute of the Humanities, he came
to know many of the pillars of the political and cultural establishment
of the United States. Yet for all of his eminence in the secular
world, McMurrin will probably be remembered for his writing and
influence on the Mormon Church. He described himself as a "loyal
heretic": he openly expressed his disbelief in many fundamental
doctrines of Mormonism. But he really never left Utah and was always
sympathetic to the church when contacted for comment by the national
Matters of Conscience: Conversations with Sterling M. McMurrin
is a transcript of interviews with the man, conducted over almost
a decade by L. Jackson Newell, a former co-editor of Dialogue
and also a professor at the University of Utah. This book also serves
as a sort of autobiography of McMurrin. In the interviews, it appears
that McMurrin (perhaps unconsciously) modeled his style of speaking
after that of the late U.S. President Harry S. Truman. We get the
same pungent tone of "plain speaking"--he is usually tactful but
seldom pulls his punches where candor is concerned. He cherished
his Western roots; in his spare time he raised horses, wore string
ties, and was very conservative in his personal life.
The most compelling chapters of the book are those that outline
McMurrin's encounters with LDS General Authorities. D. Michael Quinn
has demonstrated that the LDS hierarchy can in some ways be thought
of as a large, extended family. McMurrin was a grandson of a general
authority and grew up knowing many of the others. Because of these
personal relationships (and his lack of rancor), he was allowed
to freely speak his mind. After one meeting with Elders Harold B.
Lee and Joseph Fielding Smith, during which they discussed McMurrin's
dissenting opinions, Elder Smith told McMurrin, "in spite of your
telling us of your disbeliefs and heresies, we want you to know
that you have the Holy Ghost" (p. 194).
An effort was apparently made in the mid-50's to excommunicate
McMurrin, but it was spiked by church president David O. McKay.
The president told the professor that he would be the first witness
in McMurrin's defense at any church court. He also told McMurrin
that the LDS ban on black males holding the priesthood (a major
bone of contention with conservative church leaders) was a "practice",
not a doctrine, and would someday be changed. Ironically, this attempt
to purge McMurrin became one of the church's finest hours in the
delicate matter of toleration of individual conscience.
McMurrin remembered having strong religious feelings in his childhood,
but he dismissed them as "emotion." He became in adulthood a convert
to the great 20th century idea of naturalism, rather like Fawn Brodie.
Unlike Brodie, however, he still saw great value in the church.
There was an ambivalence about his religious stirrings; he wanted
to believe, but he saw the prevaling secular philosophies of midcentury
western culture as forbidding it. In a twist of fate, purely materialist
systems (like Marxism) have now fallen into intellectual disrepute.
One wonders how a young McMurrin would react to the changing zeitgeist
if he were just starting out now.
There are at least a couple of ways of viewing McMurrin's life:
one is to consider him as an example of what BYU professor Louis
Midgely calls "the acids of modernity"--that is, what can happen
to a person's religious faith when it is subjected to the relentless
skepticism of modernism. The critic Midge Decter wrote a book in
the 70's titled Liberal Parents, Radical Children. Her point
was that liberalism in one generation frequently leads to radicalism
(or in the case of religion, unbelief) in the next. It is understandable
that church leaders would fear that, after McMurrin, other heretics
would appear that would be far less "loyal."
On the other hand, Todd Compton writes of "non-hierarchical revelation."
Taking the example of the blacks and the priesthood, perhaps the
Lord was using McMurrin's dissent as a tool to remove encrustations
of superstition and culturally-induced "practices" from the pure
gospel of Christ. Eugene England has suggested that one reason blacks
hadn't received the priesthood by 1978 wasn't that they were unworthy,
but that *we* weren't ready for them to have it because of our racism.
In an interview with Time magazine at the time of the priesthood
revelation, McMurrin said "the young people of the church wouldn't
stand for it (the ban) anymore." Perhaps it was the function of
McMurrin, Lowell L. Bennion, and others like them to alter the environment
of the church in order to make change possible. In any event, Matters
of Conscience is a very interesting history of one Mormon's
life during the turbulent 20th century.
For more than fifty years, Sterling M. McMurrin served as one of
the preeminent intellectual voices of the LDS community. From his
beginnings as an Institute of Religion instructor in Arizona to
his position as U.S. Commissioner of Education in the Kennedy administration,
and from a professor of philosophy at the University of Utah to
U.S. Envoy to Iran, he showed by example how educational, religious,
and government institutions can maintain high ideals.
In a series of candid, far-reaching discussions with his close
friend, L. Jackson Newell, McMurrin reveals his ability to reconcile
the competing demands of freedom, loyalty, and conscience. He responds
to Newell's probing questions with good humor, giving examples from
his own life to illustrate points. He seems to have never lost faith,
even in the 1960s era of escalating cynicism, that honesty and justice
"This book is neither biography nor autobiography, though it has
characteristics of both," writes Professor Boyer Jarvis in the foreword.
"In a spirit of repartee and friendship, Newell probes, challenges,
and constantly draws McMurrin out as he tells the story of his life
and reflects upon his wide-ranging ideas and experiences. Rich in
insight and humor, this remarkable dialogue captures the sweep and
depth of McMurrin's thought as Newell engages him in discussing
his approaches to philosophy, education, and religion."
"Among the qualities that characterized McMurrin's life and mind,"
explains Newell in the preface, "perhaps the most notable is the
freedom with which he has spoken his views on both the sacred and
the profane. His intellectual integrity--coupled as it almost always
is with his humane instincts and innate fairness--has simultaneously
confounded and earned the respect of critics . . . Thus this former
. . . lay leader in the Mormon church, U.S. Commissioner, and Distinguished
Professor of Philosophy has been admired and vilified--and frequently
envied--by others who have led or served in the [same] institutions."
Sterling M. McMurrin was E. E. Ericksen Distinguished Professor
of Philosophy and History Emeritus at the University of Utah until
his death in 1996. He was formerly a professor of education, academic
vice president, and dean of the graduate school at the University
of Utah, a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University, a Ford Fellow
in philosophy at Princeton, U.S. Envoy to Iran, and United States
Commissioner of Education. He authored Education and Freedom;
The Philosophical Foundations of Mormon Theology and its
companion, The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion;
Religion, Reason and Truth: Essays in the Philosophy of Religion;
and Swiss Schools and Ours: Why Theirs Are Better; co-authored
Contemporary Philosophy: A Book of Readings; A History
of Philosophy; Matters of Conscience: Conversations with
Sterling M. McMurrin on Philosophy, Education, and Religion;
and Toward Understanding the New Testament; and contributed
to The Truth, The Way, The Life, An Elementary Treatise on Theology:
The Masterwork of B. H. Roberts.
L. Jackson Newell, professor of higher education and former dean
of Liberal Education at the University of Utah, is currently president
of Deep Springs College in California. He is a co-author of Creating
Distinctiveness: Lessons from Uncommon Colleges and Universities;
Matters of Conscience: Conversations with Sterling M. McMurrin
on Philosophy, Education, and Religion; and A Study of Professors
of Educational Administration: Problems and Prospects of an Applied
Academic Field. He is a contributing author to Religion,
Feminism, and Freedom of Conscience: A Mormon/Humanist Dialogue
and The Wilderness of Faith: Essays on Contemporary Mormon Thought.
He is the past co-editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought,
and his many honors include the Joseph Katz Award for distinguished
leadership in American education and CASE Professor of the Year.
The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion
University of Utah Press, 1977. ISBN 087480051X.
A Philosopher, Sterling M. McMurrin (1914-96) appreciated the similarities
between Mormonism and Hellenistic Christianity. For instance, Church
Fathers of the fifth century admired Plato, who taught that there
is one God, coexistent with such eternal entities as Justice and
Love—to which Joseph Smith added Priesthood and Church. Where Augustine
modified Plato, Mormonism would tend to side with his critic, the
Stoic-leaning Pelagius. In this broad context, what is Mormonism's
contribution to the overall pursuit of life's fundamental, ontological
questions? Herein lies McMurrin's intent—an invitation to join him
on a wide-ranging search for purpose. He finds his church's synthesis
of heresy and orthodoxy to be refreshing and impressive in this
light, in its treatment of evil, sin, and free will. Belief in a
personal God may run counter to traditional faith, but it is nonetheless
emotionally satisfying and accessible to the human imagination.
McMurrin was E. E. Ericksen Distinguished Professor of Philosophy
at the University of Utah and U.S. Commissioner of Education under
President John F. Kennedy. Of his nine books, Theological Foundations
is considered his masterpiece. The present edition includes his
earlier essay, "The Philosophical Foundations of Mormon Theology,"
with a biographical introduction by Deep Springs College president
L. Jackson Newell and a glossary of terms by Dr. McMurrin's daughter,
Sterling M. McMurrin was Academic Vice President and dean of the
graduate school at the University of Utah, a Visiting Scholar at
Columbia University and the Union Theological Seminary, and a Ford
Fellow in philosophy at Princeton. In addition to being U.S. Commissioner
of Education (see above), he served as US Envoy to Iran. He contributed
to The Autobiography of B. H. Roberts and Memories and
L. Jackson Newell is the former dean of Liberal Education at the
University of Utah. He is the co-author of Creating Distinctiveness,
Matters of Conscience, and A Study of Professors;
a contributor to Neither White nor Black; Personal Voices;
Religion, Feminism, and Freedom of Conscience; and The
Wilderness of Faith; and is a past coeditor of Dialogue.
He has received the CASE Professor of the Year and Joseph Katz Distinguished
Leadership in Education awards. Currently he is president of Deep
McMurrin Jackson Newellin haastateltavana
Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought