Welcome to a conversation with Sterling M. McMurrin.
I am Jack Newell and it is my pleasure to be able to
introduce him and engage in this conversation with him today. Sterling
Moss McMurrin is the E.E. Erikson distinguished professor of history
at the university of Utah, Emeritus, where he has also served as
Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Letters, Academic Vice-President
and Provost. His field is the Philosophy of History and the History
of Philosophy. He served as United States Commissioner of Education
under John F. Kennedy in the early 1960's and Professor McMurrin
is the author of many books on the philosophy of religion including,
The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion
which has been in press constantly since 1965 and The Philosophical
Foundations of Mormon Theology since 1959. Both of these
still available at the University of Utah Press. Sterling has long
been what I would describe as a loving critic of the Mormon church,
described as everything from a heretic to a long time Mormon, and
indeed he is both.
Jack: Sterling, you have two very influential and
admirable sets of grandparents. Joseph W. McMurrin was your grandfather,
in the First Quorum of the Seventy with B.H. Roberts in the 1930's,
a very influential gentleman I am sure.
Your other grandfather, Moss was the founder of the Deseret
Livestock Company. So you have in your veins people of influence
in the world and influence in the spiritual realms. How did they
influence your perspective on life as you were growing up?
Sterling: Well, I think both of my grandfathers had
considerable influence on me. Especially my mother's father who
was the chief founder of the Deseret Livestock Company. That is
because I was with him a great deal on cattle and sheep ranches
right up to the time of his death when I was a college student.
He was a man of very great stature in my opinion. My grandfather,
Joseph W. McMurrin was a very powerful figure, back in the old days
when the tabernacle used to ring with great oratory. Most of the
people there these days have no idea of what happened in the old
days. I remember a biographer of Brigham Young, for instance, Werner,
who in the introduction to his book on Brigham Young, said that
Brigham Young would get up in the tabernacle and "God bless" the
people for some things and "God damn" them for others. Those were
the good old days when going to conference meant something.
Jack: You took a different path than either one of
your grandfathers. How did you end up becoming a professor and interested
in things theological?
Sterling: You mean, how come I failed so miserably?
I had a teacher who once said ... (He was a great figure in the
philosophy of religion), ... he said, "I have a brother who always
had the nerve to do the things that I wanted to do. And I was afraid.
And he would go ahead and do them. And he ended up as a successful
man in the world of affairs and I became a Professor of Christian
theology and Christian ethics." So if you can't succeed in something
more important, go in for teaching philosophy.
Jack: Now before you taught philosophy, you taught
in the church's institute and seminary system in the 1930's. What
did you teach and how did you feel about that at that point in your
Sterling: Well, I became a seminary teacher in 1937
and I taught classes mainly in Old Testament and New Testament.
I liked the Old Testament better than the New Testament. To me it
was far more interesting and I don't think they let me teach the
classes, as I recall, in church history and doctrine which they
used to have in those days. Later on when I was the Director of
the Institute at the University of Arizona, I taught some classes
in mormon theology and then courses in the history of religion and
Jack: Did you feel comfortable in terms of teaching
the church doctrine and church history at that point?
Sterling: O sure, sure. I feel comfortable now in
teaching church doctrine. It is just that they don't want me to
teach it. I have been thrown out of more Sunday Sunday School classes
than most of these people have attended. (Sterling seems to be speaking
of his audience. They laugh.) I think that mormon doctrine is a
fascinating subject. I have no objection to teaching it at all.
Now there is much of it that I don't believe. But there is a great
deal in Platonism and Aristotelianism that I don't believe, but
I have made a living at teaching that stuff. (Audience laughs.)
A kind of a living, you know.
Jack: I have heard you say on a number of occasions
that Mormon theology has greater strengths than church leaders are
even aware of.
Sterling: Well, I think that is true. In order to
appreciate the real strengths in mormon theology, as well as it's
weaknesses, a person has to have some kind of comprehension, it
seems to me, of the history of religion and theology and know a
good deal about what has been going on in the world in those areas,
in order to compare the Mormon theology with others. You mentioned
a book of mine, The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion.
That was written originally as lectures given at the University
of Utah. Then the university press wanted to publish it as a book.
Then one of my colleagues, Sidney Engleman, who no doubt, some of
you would have known, a non-Mormon, a highly cultivated Mormon watcher,
very critical of Mormonism in a sophisticated way said to me when
he read the book, "You know, you have made Mormonism look a lot
better than it really is." I said, "That is exactly what I intended
to do. The other writers make it look worse than it is." (audience
laughs) I mean that quite seriously. Mormon theology has strengths
that virtually all, not all, but virtually all of the writers in
the church seem to have been unaware of.
Jack: And what are these strengths?
Sterling: Well, at the present time of course, there
is more attention given to them than there was 30 years ago when
I did that book. The chief strength of Mormon theology is its opposition
to absolutism in theology. And right to this day the general run
of the accepted, not all Mormon writers, but the accepted Mormon
writers ... (There aren't many accepted Mormon writers in this crowd
here today, probably.) ... but the accepted Mormon writers are involved
in the traditional, absolute theology and they don't seem to realize
that what Joseph Smith did was make a break with that. They are
busily engaged now, some of the officials of the Church who turn
out books ... (I sometimes wonder where some of them find time to
do anything else) ... they turn out so many of these books. These
books are steeped with absolutism that Mormonism made a break with.
That is the strength of Joseph Smith as a religious leader. If you
examine what the history of religion has said, he had a few ideas
of his own and a few of them, I think, are very good ideas, not
all of them, but some of them.
Jack: Sure. Name some other strengths that you see
in addition to the notion of a limited God.
Sterling: Well, a good deal that is related to that
-- that is that God is a being who is involved in world process,
rather than being some kind of a static entity, that god is a temporal
being. It is the temporal facet of the nature of God which distinguishes
Mormonism. And I think that in some ways the materialistic facet
of Mormonism. I mean the materialism in metaphysics, not ethics.
A perfectly good word that is ruined by people using it if you like
good automobiles or something like that. I should tell you, if I
may, of an incident that occured years ago when I was doing work
at Princeton University. This would have been in 1953. I called
on Doug (typist's note: I could not make out the last name), a British
philospher at Princeton, a man of great stature in the field of
philosophy and he had been a teacher at Stanford in earlier years
of Obert Tanner whom some of you know very well. And they had become
very good friends. And in the course of our conversation he said
to me, "You know, it seems to me that Obert Tanner said that God
had a body. No...", he said "...that can't be true ... that couldn't
be true. It seems to me that Tanner said to me that you Mormons
believe that God has a body like a human being. That can't be true,
And I said, "Yes, that is what Tanner told you and that is
what the Mormons believe." And he slapped his hand down on the table
and he says, "God damn, it is nice to find a religion that makes
some sense." (audience laughter) Now you understand that he didn't
say that he thought it was true. Just that it made some sense. He
didn't think it was true. But it is a strength of Mormonism to bring
God down out of the emperiam, out of the clouds and try to, in some
way or another, and make some way for God to be a living being.
This is the great thing in the Bible, you see, that distinguished
the Biblical God from the typical deity of the ancient world, is
that God is a living God. And this is stressed over and over again
in the Bible. This, I think, is a real strength of mormon theology.
The problem is that in their efforts to do this, too many of the
Mormon writers get involved in a lot of ludicrous stuff so that
they humanize God as if he is just somebody down the road who has
been here longer than we have, knows a lot more than we know, but
after all, he is one of us. Well, that is a form of blasphemy and
that is what you get in a lot of Mormon writing.
Jack: Are there other strengths in the theology of
Mormonism that you would like to point out at this time?
Sterling: Yes. If you regard this as a theological
item. The Mormon emphasis on the freedom of the will. Or what Mormons
call, this is using an old fashion terminology, what Mormons call,
free agency. This is a very great strength in Mormonism. St. Augustine,
the greatest of the theologicans, denied the freedom of the will
in some of his writings, although in other of his writings he defended
it. Martin Luther in his controversies with Erasmus, the Catholic
humanist, argued against the freedom of the will. There are many
arguments against the freedom of the will in John Calvin. If you
take the three most important of the Christian theologicans, in
the history of Christianity and this is a great strength in Mormonism,
the emphasis on the freedom of the will. The problem is, Mormon
writers have never contributed anything whatsoever to the solution
of the problems that are associated with a belief in the free will,
at the same time holding to a principle of universal causation that
events which occur are caused to occur. My point is that you take
a person like B. H. Roberts who laid great stress on the claim of
freeedom of the will and it is a good thing he did. He made no contributions,
as far as I know of, to the problem of the freedom of the will.
It is not a simple problem. It is a very difficult problem to make
a case for free will.
Jack: Let's take these two terms we have been using:
Mormon theology. What is theology?
Sterling: Well, theology is what is done to try to
make sense out of what the people believe. I mean that quite seriously.
People believe certain things. The early Christians believed that
Christ was divine. And so the theologians had to make some kind
of sense out of that. And what they did, eventually, in the 4th
century was come up with the Nicean creed which employed Aristotelian
metaphysics to make the case that Christ is divine as the Father
is divine. There is an American philosopher of religion, I don't
think he is any too good. I kind of told him that once and he didn't
much like it. He was professor of philosophy at the Divinity School
at the University of Chicago. Henry Nelson Wyman. And Wyman in the
... he wrote a book entitled (it is a wonderful title), The Wrestle
of Religion with Truth. This has been going on for some time.
And in the first page of that he said the theologian is like a cook.
He takes all of the ingredients and puts them together in theological
formula in such a way that the people like it. It is good. Now,
he says, the philosopher of religion is like a dietician. He sniffs
around to see what the theologian has put in the stew, whether the
people liked it or not. Now that is rather crude. I have made it
even cruder than he did. But I think it is a very good idea. The
term theology is a derivative of two Greek words: theo and logo
which simply means the word about god, or the study of god as it
is sometimes put. Now Immanuel Kant said that the subject matter
of theology is God, Freedom and Immortality. And that is usually
what we think of in connection with theology, at least God and Immortality.
Philosophy is a different matter. It is an analytical pursuit
to try to find out the meanings of things. And it, as you will know
Jack, and others, the term philosophy in Greek means the love of
Jack: Now theology is the task of trying to make sense
of what the people believe, does Mormon theology go back to what
Sterling: Yes, Yes. I think Mormonism makes a great
mistake when it departs too far from the position of Joseph Smith.
I say that because I think that Joseph Smith was a genuine revolutionary
in religion. He didn't accept the establish religion. Now Thomas
Alexander at the BYU, brilliant historian, has done some excellent
things on the early development of Mormon theology. And he has shown,
and I think he is quite right, that in the beginning it was not
radically different. As you go back into the Kirtland era, it is
not radically different than much Christian theology. Sidney Rigdon
had a lot to do with it. He was an accomplished Campbellite minister.
The Campbellites were an offshoot of the baptists. He read a lot
of baptist theology into Mormonism. Faith, repentance and baptism.
That comes out of the baptist church largely through Sidney Rigdon,
I think. But as time went on down to the time of the death of Joseph
Smith you get the development of the more radical type of thing
that showed up. For instance in the King Follett sermon which I
think is a gross statement of ideas that can be worked at in a somewhat
more refined way. You see, Joseph Smith said in the King Follett
address, just a few months before he died, that we are co-equal
with God. Well, the church rather wisely toned that down. It now
reads, co-eternal. That is, the ego that was uncreated is co-eternal,
not co-equal. That is probably what Joseph Smith had in mind.
I have a good deal of respect for Joseph Smith, but some
of his ideas are extreme. He had rather extreme ideas, I think,
on marriage. (laughter) It didn't do Mormonism much good. I am not
sure that it didn't, to be frank with you. If it hadn't have been
for polygamy, I suspect ,... well, I for one wouldn't have been
here. Yes, I would. Yes, I would. I am 3/4 polygamist, but always
by the first wife. (laughter) (Sterling laughs himself, turns to
the audience and says) Now there are a lot of you who wouldn't be
here if you weren't first wifers. (more laughter)
But my point is that the whole polygamy issue ... I know
that it is impossible for historians to tell what causes what, always
... but the whole polygamist hassle helped to make Mormonism what
it is. We can thank the Lord that it is gone, though it will never
completely disappear. And there are plenty of people in this room
who are kind of looking forward to polygamy in the hereafter. (laughter)
It is hard to tell just exactly what the church teaches on that.
But the church would never have been what it is today with[out]
polygamy. We wouldn't have had our great martyrs and so on. And
polygamy probably lead to Joseph Smith's assassination. And if I
may hazard an historical observation. And I wouldn't want to be
completely misunderstood. I think it was a fortunate thing for the
church historically that Joseph Smith died when he did. Because
the church was beginning to fall apart. It seems like it was beginning
to go to pieces and something needed to be done to pull things together.
And Brigham Young is the one who pulled things together. I think
Brigham Young is a very great man. I don't agree with a lot of his
stuff, but I think he was a man of very great stature. I don't think
Joseph Smith was a man of great stature. I think he was a charismatic,
prophetic type. And I wouldn't quite put him in Brigham Young's
class as a leader.
He was a bad judge of people. Rather bad, you know. Brigham
Young was a good judge of people. He knew when to have them around
and when to get rid of them, in more ways than one. (Laughter).
But Joseph Smith, you know, John C. Bennett a famous apostate who
caused him a bit of trouble. John C. Bennett wrote to Joseph Smith.
He was a charlatan of the worse order and an adventurer. And if
I am not mistaken about this, he wrote to Joseph Smith, told him
he would like to join him and said, I'll be your right hand man.
And Joseph Smith wrote back and said he didn't want him and said,
God is my right hand man. Now that is really a piece of presumption.
But later on he did business with John C. Bennett and it resulted
in all kinds of trouble. Well, that is a little beside the point.
Jack: Well, one thing that you mentioned on theology.
The two things that you mentioned as distinctive strengths of Mormon
theology: the notion of a limited god and free-will. If you were
writing the Theological Foundations of Religion today, instead
of in 1965, would you abe able to say those things, or has our theology,
in fact evolved to a point where the emphasis on what you regarded
as the strengths is no longer there?
Sterling: I tell you Jack, I wouldn't compromise what
I put in those essays. But I would have a preface that made the
point. As a matter of fact I am doing some essays on the philosophy
of Mormonism and in the preface I have made the point that today
it is very difficult to determine what is the official doctrine
of the Mormon church. I think it is very difficult. Back when I
was learning things about Mormonism, when James E. Talmage and B.
H. Roberts and Orsen Whitney--(Here are people of great intellectual
strengths and Talmage and Roberts died in 1933 as you will know.)
-- It was when I was a college student. Back in those days you could
tell what the Mormon church believed and what it didn't believe.
But it wasn't every Tom, Dick and Harry in the general authorities
who were turning out books. And now a days, everyone is turning
out these books and people think that, of course, they know what
they are talking about, and so you have a hard time. I mean you
have a hard time comparing some of Neal Maxwell's writings with
B. H. Roberts. A few years ago, Daniel Rector said to me ... there
was a small group that got me to talk with them. A little priesthood
group outside of church. They didn't invite me to meet them in church.
A little elder's quorum, but outside. And he came. And I talked
about some of these things. The very things you have just named.
And Daniel Rector, whom I met, a very bright young man, not so young
now, he said, "You know, you are a Talmage / Roberts / Widstoe Mormon.
The church doesn't believe these things any more. They don't go
in for that kind of theology anymore." And I thought. What is this
kid trying to tell me. He said, "You have lost touch with reality."
So I got around and got in touch with reality and discovered he
was absolutely right. He was absolutely right. Those men have been
forgotten. And we now ... I haven't read many of these things lately,
so I could be corrected. What the philosophers call as corrigible.
Not incorrigible. My stuff is corrigible. But my impression now
is that it would be very difficult to just take the things that
are being put out now and determine just what it is that the beliefs
of the Mormon church are now.
Jack: Why has that change occurred?
Sterling: Well, I think it has occurred because ...
well, I don't know why it has occurred. I was going to say it has
occurred partly because the general authorities are not now drawn
so much from people like Roberts, Talmage and Widtsoe and Joseph
Merrill and Orson F. Whitney. I don't mean that they don't draw
from people of real stature. I have a very high regard for most,
not all, but most of the general authorities of the church. I think
they are people of great stature and integrity. But those we looked
to, a few years ago, as leaders for the intellectual life of the
church have betrayed us.
Jack: How has that happened?
Sterling: They have betrayed us. Oh, I don't know.
The leadership of the church just seems to have lost touch with
reality. You take this situation down at the BYU. It is a deplorable,
a deplorable situation. I have plenty of sympathy for the church
on things like that. The church general authorities. They are there
to preserve the faith. At least that is what they consider themselves
to be there for. To be the preservers of the faith. It is difficult
at times to tell just what sort of faith they are preserving, but
that is the function. And some of these BYU teachers, unfortunately,
have minds of their own. Some of us heard this young woman, Marti
Bradley in this room before we started, a brilliant statement in
defense of academic freedom. They have minds of their own and the
church doesn't know what to do with them. Just doesn't know what
to do with them. I think it is a serious question as to whether
the church should have a university. A church that is committed
to any extent to thought control shouldn't have a university. Just
shouldn't have it. And this contention has gone on for a long time
and it flairs up from time to time. I don't know what they can do.
Now when I say a university, I don't say that it wouldn't be wise
for the church to support the people in education. I might just
tell you that the commissioner of education when I worked for the
church, Franklin L. West, some of you here knew him, Franklin West
was a physicist and dean of the college in Logan. He became commissioner
of education back in the 30's and was until Wilkinson came on the
scene. And Franklin L. West used to advise the people to have their
young people go to the universities of their choice and especially
in their own states. That was the official policy of the church.
They weren't of the opinion that they had to go to the BYU. Well,
the church has been able to support an interest in religion through
the Institutes. And very effectively, I think. And still have the
students get an education in institutions where there is genuine
freedom. The University of Utah, in my opinion, is in the intellectual
sense, as free an institution as there is in the world. And I can
give evidences for that. A student at the BYU should have the same
Now the BYU officials, you know, and Wilkensen used to make
a great deal of this, is to say that the BYU is a freer institution
than the University of Utah. It was freer because they could take
courses in Mormonism. At the University of Utah we didn't have real
intellectual freedom because we couldn't give courses in Mormonism.
Well, you know there are different ways of arguing all of this.
But it is a travesty that an institution that talks about the glory
of God is intelligence, and a man is saved no faster than he gains
knowledge and that makes free agency and freedom of the will a foundation
of the faith, to behave as they sometimes do behave. Not always.
But right now, at the BYU.
Jack: You certainly weren't at the BYU, but in the
1950's local authorities of the church began proceedings to excommunicate
you Sterling. What was that over? What were they angry about?
Sterling: I am not sure. They were just mad. No, it
didn't have anything to do with the BYU. I taught at the BYU the
summer of 1977. And it was as pleasant an experience of teaching
as I ever had in my life. It was a delightful experience. Now there
were 2 spies assigned to both of my classes. But I knew that you
see. So, if you know there are spies there, it adds to the fun.
They were very bright. I gave them both "A"s. I really did. Well,
they were both bright. They were smart. And they were good spies.
They finally confessed near the end of the course. They were in
both classes. I taught 2 classes. One on contemporary philosophical
types and one on the history of the philosophy of religion in the
occident. And they were very good students. They weren't spies for
the administration, I hasten to say. They were spies for Sidney
B. Sperry who was a leading man there in religion. He wasn't the
head of the religion department. But he was a major figure. And
they had done a good job. I got along very well, down there with
everybody. Now the head of religion got fired, they told me, partly
because of his having me there. But this was fortunate for him because
he went out and made a lot of money. Became quite well to do.
Jack: Now let's get back to ... excommunication.
Sterling: Oh, I was just trying to avoid that. I heard
this often, that I am excommunicated. It is nothing new. But it
was fairly new back then, back in 1954. I began hearing in my ward
that I was being excommunicated and so on, so I called on the bishop.
The Bishop was an employee of the church, not one of the authorities,
but rather high level civil servant of the church.
Jack: He was called to do right as he saw it.
Sterling: You bet your life. Anyway, I called on him
and asked him what was going on. I was hearing these things. And
he said to me, these are his exact words, in a very formal way,
he said, "Sterling, it is my ecclesiastical duty to investigate
you to determine whether you should be brought to trail for excommunication.
Well, they were investigating me. A rather interesting thing. I
had two sessions with him. Before the first session broke up he
asked me if I would furnish him the names of people they could use
as witnesses against me. You know, I didn't think that is the way
you were supposed to go about it. And I said, "Look you are supposed
to get your own witnesses." But he said, "We haven't been able to
find anybody." This is a true story. And I said, "Now look. I have
taught Sunday School classes, and this, and that and the other and
surely you can find somebody." And he said, "No, we haven't been
able to find anybody." So I said, "Well, I will give you two names."
I had had two long sessions dealing with my heresies with Joseph
Fielding Smith and Harold B. Lee, together. Joseph Fielding Smith
was President of the Quorum of the Twelve and Harold B. Lee was
next. And as you know they both became presidents of the church.
But this was when President McKay was President, before Joseph Fielding.
I said, "I can give you two names that would make excellent witnesses
because they are fully conversant with all of my heresies. All of
them. Well, maybe not all of them, but all of the basic ones." President
Smith said to me, "Now Brother McMurrin, we want you to know" (they
were very nice to me, they were both very nice), he said, "... we
want you to know that in this church a man is free to believe whatever
he wants to believe just so he accepts certain of the fundamentals."
I thought, a good statement. Well, I said, "Now President Smith,
the problem is it's those fundamentals that I simply don't believe."
So we took it from there. But I said to the Bishop, I said, "President
Joseph Field Smith and Apostle Harold B. Lee." He said, "You know
we can't use them." Well, I said, "Why can't you use them?" Well,
I discovered later on why they couldn't very well use them. Joseph
Fielding instigated the thing in the first place.
Ah, I liked him much. I liked him very much. The thing I
liked about Joseph Fielding Smith was he was honest and courageous.
He said what he thought and he didn't care whether anybody liked
it or not. And I admired that in him. (tape turns over and for several
seconds Sterling's voice is too unclear for me to hear, but picking
up what I can, it seems he is saying) ... the commissioner of education
told me once that ... Joseph Fielding Smith ... officer of the church
board of education and they had the purse strings for the Institute
and the BYU and so on and he told me that Joseph Fielding Smith
more than any other person that he dealt with was ready to put money
The man believed Mormonism. He really believed it. Some of
them don't believe it, you see. But he really believed it. He thought
that it would come out on top, regardless of what goes on in these
institutions, that mormonism will win. I admired him greatly.
Jack: Anyway, back to the bishop.
(some conversation back and forth which I will delete in
the interest of brevity, but which can be heard on the tape)
Sterling: Should I tell the rest of this? Well, I
haven't told you everything that went before. I have to tell one
other thing. I went down to conference, that was just before this
happened, stake conference and Joseph Fielding was the speaker.
He was the visitor. And he was very dramatic. Those of you that
remember him. He said, "There are wolves among us, wolves among
us. WOLVES, among us, I tell you, wolves among us. And a couple
of people in my high priest's quorum went up to talk to him afterwards
and inadvertently mentioned my name. And he said, "Is that Sterling
McMurrin you are talking about." And they said, "Yes." And he said,
"He is the chief wolf I have been telling you about."
I shouldn't tell you all this. And he told them, "He is not
to be permitted to come to your priesthood meetings and if he does
come, he is not to be permitted to say anything. He is going to
be excommunicated." And that's the way this got out in my ward.
I haven't said, but I must tell you that I liked Joseph Fielding
Smith very much and after he became president of the church we had
some very pleasant communications. The day after, ... shall I tell
Sterling: Well, the day after he became President
of the Church, Sister Jessie Evans Smith, who most of you will remember
had a very distinctive voice, called me on the telephone. Natalie
answered the telephone. It was about 10 o'clock at night. And she
recognized her voice and she handed me the phone and she says, "It
is President Smith's wife, Jessie Evans Smith." She said, "Sterling."
I said, "Sister Smith, well how is President Smith?" "Oh, he's wonderful,
He's wonderful. Now that is what I am calling about. Joseph told
me to call you and tell you that he doesn't want you and Natalie
to take us off of your list."
Now I had never heard that expression before, but I kind
of got the point of it. And I said, "Now Sister Smith, you tell
President Smith that I will make a deal with him. As long as he
keeps me on his list, I'll keep him on my list." Anyway, I could
tell you a lot more in that direction but I shouldn't take the time,
Jack: But in this other direction, you're still in
trouble with this bishop who says he's going to press charges. (Typist's
note: laughter from audience as Jack keeps pressing Sterling to
tell the story which Sterling keeps moving away from.) What happened?
Sterling: Well, I guess I will have to tell you that.
A couple of days later, it may have been 3 or 4 days, President
MacKay called me up. I was going for lunch with one of my colleges
who was not a member. He called me on the telephone and he said,
"Somebody has been calling who says he is David O MacKay. I guess
it's just a joke."
And I thought, "This may not be such a joke." And I had no
sooner put up the phone ... (He had said, "I gave him your home
phone number.") .... And I had no sooner put up the phone than ...
I shouldn't tell these things ... but President MacKay said, "I
want to come and see you." And I said, "President MacKay, you can't
come and see me. I'll come and see you." He said, "No sir, I'm coming
to see you." Well, he lived on South Temple in those days. Some
of you will remember the old Union Building was still the Union
Building. And I said to President McKay ... I shouldn't have even
used this language, but I said, "Well now, President MacKay. What
do you say, we meet on neutral ground." He thought that was a good
idea. So I said, "Well, I will meet you in the Union Building. Give
me a little time to get there ahead of you." I had a key to the
Aurbach Room, a very beautiful room there that they usually had
locked. And we had a long talk.
President McKay started by saying, "What is it that a man
is not ... " (Sterling interrupts his own story to say to Jack),
"These are his exact words." "...What is it that a man is not allowed
to believe? or be asked out of this church? Is it evolution?" Now
nothing had been said in connection with my case about evolution,
but he brought it up. (Jack murmurs with an understanding nod of
the head to Sterling.) He said, "Is it evolution? I hope not, because
I believe in evolution." Then he went to two or three other things.
He said, "Is it something else? I hope not, because I believe in
I said, "Well, I will tell you something, President MacKay."
He was making *me* look so good. I was feeling guilty as the devil,
you know. And I still have guilt feelings about this. I said, "President
MacKay, I think I caused some trouble in my ward. The teacher was
saying that we believe that the negroes..." (This was before the
revelation of course.) "...we believe that the negroes are cursed
because of the curse of Cain. That is why they can't hold the preisthood."
And I just said, I told them that I didn't want to argue the case,
but I wanted them to know that I didn't believe that. And President
MacKay said, "Well, I'm glad you said that, because I don't believe
it either." And he said, "That was never a doctrine of this church.
It is not a doctrine of this church and it never will be a doctrine
of this church." He said, all it is, is we believe that there is
scriptural precedent, these are his exact words "scriptural precedent".
I knew he was referring to the Pearl of Great Price item that the
negroes should not now be given the priesthood. Now he said, "That
is a practice and it is a practice that is going to be changed."
Now this was back in 1954. He said, "It is a practice that is going
to be changed and it is not a doctrine of the church." And I said,
"Well, now President MacKay, couldn't you make the statement that
you just made to me in conference? Or put it on the front page of
the Deseret News with the lines on it, you know, like they
used to do sometimes with the statements from the First Presidency?"
I said, "There are 1,000's of people in the church that believe
that is a doctrine of the church. Now couldn't you make that statement
in conference?" He sat there and with a kind of a benign smile you
know, and I thought, there is such a thing as pushing the prophets
a little too far. So I didn't say anymore. And he was thoughtful.
And he said, "Well, all I can do is say that that is not a doctrine
of the church, that it is only a practice and that it is going to
Well, we were sitting closer than you and I are and he reached
over and he would grab me by the knee, you know (at this point Sterling
moved to get closer to Jack. Jack responded and moved closer to
Sterling. Sterling took his own hand and grabbed his own knee and
tightened his fingers and said), I can still feel it. He had very
strong hands. And on the matter of the trial. He didn't mention
trial. He said, "They can't do this to you. They can not do this
to you." And I said, "Well, now President MacKay, you know more
than I know about what they can do." But I said, "It looks like
that is what they are going to do." "Well," he said, "if they bring
you up for excommunication from the church, I'll be there as the
first witness on your behalf." "Well," I said, "I couldn't ask for
a better witness."
Well, anyway, I don't know what happened about that, Jack,
but I never heard anymore about the trial.
I would like, while we are talking about this occasion with
President MacKay. He was most gracious and marvellous, but toward
the end of our long conversation he said, "There's just one piece
of advice that I would like to give you. Just one piece of advice.
It is the advice that my uncle ..." (somebody or other and he let
me know that he was the black sheep of the MacKay crowd). He said,
"He came down to the station to see me off on my mission and when
he shook hands with me he said, 'David, I just have one piece of
advice for you. You just think and believe as you please.'" And
President MacKay said, "And that's my advice to you."
"Well, you know," I said, "President MacKay, that is wonderful
advice. Couldn't you give that advice in conference?" And he kind
of laughed. Anyway, I am using up too much time.
Jack: No. No. Sterling, you have known many of the
church's presidents in your lifetime and many apostles and I know
you hold many of them in very high esteem and respect. There are
2 or 3 that I have sensed in our conversations over the years for
whom you hold real affection. And I think David O. MacKay is one
of those and I think Joseph Fielding Smith is another. Am I correct?
Sterling: That's quite true. Quite true. And President
Kimball. I think a marvelous human being. I had strong feelings
also for President Lee. He was disappointed in me, to be frank with
you. But he was very gracious in every way, right up until just
before he died. After this session that I had, there was a 3rd session
with Jsoeph Fielding Smith and Harold B. Lee. And they were both
very gracious. And some people might suppose that they were a little
on the mean side. I didn't get called in. They just asked me if
I would come in. That's different than being called in, I think.
And the first session, they wanted me to talk to them about the
problems of what Harold B. Lee called the intellectuals of the church
and Joseph Field Smith called the educated men of the church.
Jack: These are the "so-called" intellectuals.
Sterling. No! Not "the so-called" intellectuals. They were
sincere. This is the real intellectuals, like we have here, not
"the so-called one" that they have down at the BYU." (Warm laughter
from the audience again). Well, anyway, I completely revealed from
start to .... and the second session was completely concentrated
on my views, I completely revealed my heresies, which are as bad
as anybody could have, I think. And yet, Joseph Fielding Smith when
we got up and we shook hands, and I was quite moved by this, by
what I felt was his generosity. First he had said, "My door is open
to you every hour of the day, every day of the week, every week
of the year, if you will come in and talk to me about the problems
of the educated people of the church." That was his attitude. And
he said, "You know some things about that that we don't know and
we need to know about that." I greatly admired him for this. And
when we shook hands he said, "In spite of all of the heresies you
have revealed to us, your disbeliefs, I want you to know that you
have the Holy Ghost." Now in the case of Harold B. Lee he walked
out with me. I thought that was very generous of Joseph Fielding.
In fact, far too generous.
Harold B. Lee walked out with me and he said, you will excuse
me for telling you this, but this is what he said, he said, "Sterling
you could do great things for this church and you could become a
very dangerous man for this church." And I said, "I don't want to
be dangerous to the church." And so we shook hands and that was
Later, a friend of mind, George Boyd, who had been an institute
director sent me a copy of correspondence. He asked me about it.
I said, "I had never heard about it." He said, "Well, every Institute
in the church has got copies of it." It was correspondence between
President Smith and a man in Salt Lake. He had written to President
Smith, said he had been a student of mine and so on and so on and
he didn't understand why I hadn't been excommunicated from the church.
And apparently, either this guy or somebody in President Smith's
office, there is always somebody who will leak this stuff, got a
copy of this letter on official apostolic stationary from President
Smith to him saying, "I have done everything I can do to get him
excommunicated. I have failed. You will have to take it to a higher
power." (Sterling laughs.) I thought that was great. i just loved
him for that.
Jack: Now dealing with these heresies that you have
talked about in general terms, what's the most outside possibility?
Do you regard the universe as a friendly place for human beings?
Sterling: No, I don't. No. I am somewhat pessimistic.
I don't think the universe is on our side. Now I have had teachers
whom I greatly respect who can give you marvellous arguments from
... coming in from various directions to show that humanity is at
home in the universe. And after all, the universe has thrown us
up and will destroy us. We are perfectly at home. We just aren't
going to be at home forever. But I regard the world as an unfriendly
place. I don't see how anyone can take into account the enormous
amount of suffering that the human race endures and think in any
other terms than that the world doesn't give a damn for the human
Jack: On the whole would you say the world's great
religions have been an aid in ameliorating some of those ...
Sterling: (Sterling interrupts Jack) Well, I think
for the most part, that is what religion is about. Religion is an
attempt to convince us, or to convince ourselves that the suffering
and evil of the world can be sublimated and that ultimately God
is in heaven and all is well. William James, you know, said, "In
times like this, God has no business hanging around heaven." And
that is the way I feel about it. William James is my saint among
philosophers. And of the great philosophers, he is the one that
held views closest to Mormonism. He said, "God is down in all of
the muck and dirt." and these are his exact words. He's not in heaven,
he's down in all of the muck and dirt of the universe, trying to
clean it up. So that I have essentially a pessimistic view of the
human condition. I don't believe in it. Oh, incidentally, one of
the great strengths of Mormonism. I am sorry that I failed to mention
it. One of the truly great strengths of Mormonism is its abandonment
of the idea of original sin. That is the worst idea that ever in
fact entered the human mind. And it is a view that virtually all
of the great Christian religions, not in any other religion, not
in Judaism, but in Christianity. And this is one of the great strengths
of Mormonism that it refuses to accept the idea of original sin.
In original sin, you know, we sin because we are sinners. Now in
Mormonism, you sin because you are over eight years old. You are
sinful because you sin. You don't sin because you are sinful. But
the dominant view in Christianity has been and in the orthodox theology
still is, human beings sin because they are by nature sinful. Not
necessarily, by nature, but because they are sinful.
Jack: You have a pessimistic view towards the human
Sterling: Oh yes.
Jack: Sceptical about religions. But frankly, Sterling,
I don't know anyone who I believe has a more fundamentally Christian
attitude towards other people, who seems to enjoy life more in all
of the highest senses, who is more spiritual at the core than you.
In what do you anchor this verve for life, this respect for others?
Sterling: Well, that is a very gracious thing for
you to say and it is a gross overstatement of course.
Jack: I have witnesses in the audience.
Sterling: You have? Well, I have my witnesses, too.
All kind of people here know how bad I am. Well you know, the main
thing that I can think of is, that I'm a Mormon. I mean that quite
seriously. You see, one of the really good things about Mormonism
is that it brings happiness to people. In fact, I think that is
the best thing about Mormonism. It brings a sense of well-being
and happiness and desire to do things, and so on. And I think that
has had that kind of effect on me and certainly now on millions
of others. I realize that one might find the same thing in other
religions. People say to me, well, why don't you quit the church.
I have people saying this all of the time. Some of you are probably
wondering why I don't quit the church. Well, I don't see much point
in quitting the church. I don't know of any better church. I know
of churches where there is more freedom of thought, as in the case
of the Unitarians and I like the Unitarians and I have some association
with Unitarianism. But I don't know of any better church than Mormonism.
I have no inclination to turn away from, to turn my back on Mormonism.
Now, any day now, the church might decide to dispense with me, and
I will say very frankly and very honestly, I don't see any reason
why they shouldn't. I really don't. It's just that simple. And if
I were called in for ex... sometimes they say, "What would you do
if you were called in to be excommunicated?" Well, I can tell you
one thing for sure. I wouldn't miss the trial like some of my friends
have, who don't bother to go to the trial. I wouldn't miss it on
a bet. Now, I would want a witness there, but not a witness on my
behalf. Now if President McKay had shown up, I wouldn't have objected
to anything he said. But I wouldn't want a witness there on my behalf.
But I would want a witness, somebody else who could tell what happened
there. I would want somebody to see what happened. But I wouldn't
try to defend myself at all in an excommunication trial. Because
I don't have any defense. I would have to say, "Now look, you are
the people who are sort of on trial. You have got to decide whether
you want guys like me in the church or not." And there are good
reasons for not having people like me in the church, and there may
be, for all I know, there may be some good reasons for having people
like me in the church. When I was a young man and started teaching
seminary for the church there were liberally minded seminary teachers,
you know. And we thought we could make a contribution to the church.
We really did. Well, I don't think that any longer. The church belongs
to the true believers who are 100% tithe payers and the general
authorities. I used to think the church belongs to all of us. That
was back in my youthful idealistic days, you see. I don't believe
that any longer. I seriously don't believe that any longer. And
if they decide to get rid of people like me, which I am well aware
would include a lot of people in this audience, I would think they
would be perfectly within their rights.
Jack: Now seriously ...
Sterling interrupts: I would make no defense at all.
Jack: When did the young idealistic Sterling that
you describe begin to evolve away from that view?
Sterling: Well, I am not sure, but I can think of
a few things. During the 3rd year that I was teaching for the church
seminary in Mountpelier, Idaho and the commissioner of education
had written to me and asked if I would write a paper on the philosophy
of religion. He didn't say Mormonism. That would be acceptable in
a graduate philosophy seminar. So I wrote such a paper and it was
an argument for the Mormon conception of God in connection with
moral philosophy. A non-absolutistic god. And the Commissioner liked
it and the people he worked with, liked it and they published it
in a magazine which they had called Weekday Religious Education,
that the church published and sent out to all of it's teachers of
religion at BYU and the seminaries and institutes and so on. It
was a very nice thing. It had a lot of very nice things in it. And
so they published it in that. And one of the apostles took it to
President Grant. Now I have this from Dr. West, the Commissioner
himself. President Grant called him in and put my article in front
of him and he said, "I have given this article to 7 lawyers, 7 lawyers,
and everyone of them agrees that this is nothing but a lot of damn
tommyrot." That was his language. "It is nothing but a lot of damn
tommyrot. Now this man is to be fired and we do away with this magazine."
And well, he did away with the magazine. I have a fine record on
doing away with magazines. (Warm laughter of audience.) That happened
way back in the early 1940's. Well, they didn't want to fire me.
They were nice. My bosses, Lynn Bennion was my immediate boss. They
didn't want to fire me, so they sent me down to Arizona. I once
was giving a talk to a group in the Lion House, back in the 60's
and President Kimball--, he hadn't become President yet--and there
were several general authorities there. It was a banquet. It is
not clear to me how I got invited to be the speaker with all of
these general authorities, but you know President Kimball came from
Arizona and we now have a pope from Poland. And I said to President
Kimball, you know, going to Arizona for an apostle was like going
to Poland for a pope. He was the first apostle from outside of Utah.
President Benson was from Idaho, but he came a few minutes later.
President Kimball thought that was a good joke. Can I tell a joke
on the pope, since he is in our midst? This kid came home all bloodied
up and his dad said, "What is the matter with you?" Well, he said,
"The Amalie kids down the street beat me up." And his dad said,
"Well, why did they do that?" "Well," he said, "I said some dirty
things about the pope." And his dad said, "Well, surely you knew
that the Amalie kids were Catholics?" And he said, "Yeah, but I
didn't know the damn pope was a Catholic." (Warm laughter again.)
Well, to finish this story, they sent me to Arizona. And
I had been there in the seminary at Mesa. I had the college work
at Tempe and the seminary at Mesa. I had been there about 6 weeks
and some kid with a stern look on his face, young man came in and
said, "President Grant is outside in his car and he wants to speak
to you." And I thought, "My Lord, the President of the Church has
taken the time out to trace me clear down to Arizona." So I went
out and he was in the car and he apologized for not being able to
get out. He was having trouble with his legs, sciatica or something.
He wondered if I would get in the car and talk and we just had a
wonderful time. I'm pretty sure he had forgotten that, had forgotten
that I was the guy that he had told them to fire. But when he died,
I was in Tucson, when he died I gave the eulogy at the big stake
affair that they had in his memory. I liked President Grant very
much. I didn't blame him for telling them to fire me. I think I
would have done the same thing. It wasn't the best article in the
world. Anyway. I love the church, you know, and they leave me alone.
I get along famously with the church. There are several of the general
authorities, if I run into them at some concert or something, they
speak to me and I hold that any general authority who will speak
to me in public has real prophetic powers. I like them. I like them.
Sure, there are some that won't speak to me in public.
Jack: There is a lot of talk right now about threats
to the church, and as you know, Elder Packer gave a speech in May
suggesting that the chief threats to the church on the so-called
intellectuals, the homosexuals and the feminists. What would you
say if you were to say what are the chief threats to the welfare
of the LDS church in the future are?
Sterling: Oh, I thought you were going to ask me to
comment on Elder Packer.
Jack: Oh, I wouldn't restrain you from doing that.
Sterling: I was kind of looking forward to the opportunity.
Well, I will just make a very short statement. I think he is a total
disaster to the LDS church. Now I think, and I mean this very seriously,
I think the chief threat to the church, what you might call its
intellectual and moral integrity and so on is that *this* sort of
thing goes on and they don't like it. Now I think *that* is the
Now I asked that young man that was the head of Sunstone,
what's his name? I asked him, "Do the general authorities come to
any of these meetings?" His father was one of the general authorities
and I think he came. I said they ought to be here and see what the
people are thinking, instead of sitting up there condemning the
people who come here and telling BYU professors to stay away, and
so on and so on. "No," he said, "they don't come. But they have
their spies here." And I suppose they do. Now I don't object to
them having their spies here. I think it is a good thing if the
general authorities of the church have people coming to every one
of these sections if they will report back honestly as to the attitudes
and thoughts of the people. Because they are out of touch. They
are out of touch with the people. They go to the stakes and the
wards and people fawn over them and want to touch the hem of their
garments and so on. Not their *garments*. (laughter) I am mixing
up my biblical language with my Mormon language. And they are objects
of adulation and everything. That's alright. But you see, they have
no ... you take people like Dallin Oaks and Neal Maxwell. Dallin
Oaks and Neal Maxwell know better than to do some of the things
they do in condemning the people in the .... (typists note: couldn't
understand the word)--as a kind of a hatchet job as Dallin functioned
with respect to Linda Newell and her colleague on the book Emma
Smith. They know better than that. I mean, they came out of
universities. And what is it that enables people who have good ideas
and right thoughts to get taken over by that kind of a position,
so they get swallowed up in that authoritarian and dogmatic stance
that so many of them assume? That is the great threat to the church.
The very fact that Sunstone exists, and I think it is a wonderful
thing--these Sunstone affairs--the very fact that it exists shows
the weakness in the church, that people can't go to church and say
what they think. They have to get out somewhere else to say what
they think. For a long time there were these so-called church history
groups meeting. And I guess there still are. They were all over
the church because people wanted to go somewhere where they could
say what they thought and communicate with others honestly. I am
going to have to tell you a little story.
The church history group when my wife and I came to Utah
to live in 1948, we were taken into a church history group which
had the governor in it, and Obert Tanner, and Lynn Bennion and Lee
Career and Scott Matheson, the governor's father, the older Scott
Matheson who was the U.S. district attorney. Now I will never forget
at the end of the year, we didn't meet in the summer, they were
talking about what a wonderful year we had had. And Scott Matheson
said, "This has been a wonderful year. This has been the most faith
destroying year we have had." Well, I shouldn't tell all of these
things, should I.
Jack: Our time is up and Sterling, I would like to
thank you very much for this opportunity to chat.