Book review: “Conscience and Community: Sterling M. McMurrin, Obert C. Tanner & Lowell L. Bennion”

Goodreads Summary

Lowell Bennion, Sterling McMurrin, and Obert Tanner were colleagues whose lives often intertwined. All professors at the University of Utah, these three scholars addressed issues and events of their time; each influenced the thought and culture of Mormonism, helping to institute a period of intellectual life and social activism. In Conscience and Community multiple scholars, family members, and others look at the private and public aspects of three lives and examine the roles they played in shaping their communities inside and out of their university and church.

Lowell Bennion was founding director of the LDS Institute of Religion and professor of sociology at the University of Utah. He established multiple community service entities. Sterling McMurrin was distinguished professor of philosophy and history, dean of the graduate school, and former commissioner of education under JFK. He dismissed dogma and doctrine as barriers to a search for moral and spiritual understanding. Obert Tanner, also of the university’s Philosophy Department, excelled in teaching and business and became especially well known for philanthropy. The lives and work of these three men reveal the tensions between faith and reason, conscience and obedience. Their stories speak to us today because their concerns remain our concerns: racial justice, women’s equality, gay rights, and the meaning of integrity and conscience.

Conscience and Community: Sterling M. McMurrin, Obert C. Tanner, and Lowell L. Bennion

Why This Book

I was made aware of this book by the Association for Mormon Letters book review by Kevin Folkman. A few of my book reviews have been featured on their website, and I always check in now as they have some excellent recommendations that wouldn’t otherwise pop up on my radar. I only needed to see the subjects of the book (McMurrin, Tanner, and Bennion) to know that it was a must-read. I didn’t know about these figures from recent Mormon history until I read Greg Prince’s book David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism. McMurrin features the most in that book, my favorite scene being McMurrin’s meeting with Church President David O. McKay when the possibility of his excommunication was immanent:

The discussion with President McKay lasted for some time, I think perhaps about an hour and a half, and in every way he was not only friendly, but affectionate in his whole attitude toward me— not a word of criticism or reproof, or in any way disapproval…. Then he just hit me on the knee, and took hold of my knee and said, “They cannot do this to you!” I didn’t say anything. He said, “They cannot do this to you! They cannot put you on trial!”… I said, “Well, President McKay, you know better than I what they can do, but it appears to me that they are going to put me on trial.” He said, “They cannot do it!” And then, there was a rather long pause, and he said, “Well, all I can say is, that if they put you on trial for excommunication, I will be there as the first witness in your behalf.” Well, I was rather visibly moved by this expression of his, and said, “Well, I don’t think that I could find a much better witness.” I kind of laughed, and he laughed, and it sort of broke the tension of the situation….

I should have been censured for being such a heretic, and here President McKay wasn’t even interested in raising a single question about my beliefs, but simply insisted that a man in this Church had a right to believe as he pleased. And he stressed that in several ways…. It was really a quite remarkable experience, to have the President of the Church talking in such genuinely liberal terms. Always after that, President McKay was most friendly to me. I would encounter him on some occasions, and had some correspondence with him. He would write to me in not only a friendly manner, but even in a kind of affectionate manner.

McMurrin was, to me, the first example I could find that simultaneously maintained a respect for Church leaders while not towing the line when his conscience conflicted with Church policy or culture.

Lowell Bennion is mentioned briefly in The Rise of Modern Mormonism when he was targeted by Church leaders and removed from his position as Institute director at the University of Utah for harboring unorthodox views. Prince is included is this series of essays with Lowell Bennion, Race and Justice specifically focusing on how he (oftentimes publicly) confronted Church leaders on the priesthood ban, even managing to “nibble at the edges” of the ban when his efforts resulted in the removing the requirement to prove through family histories that you didn’t “have a drop of Negro blood” in order to receive the priesthood. I had heard of Bennion earlier, first by his legacy of service at my alma mater, the University of Utah, and later when I read Learning to Like Life: A Tribute to Lowell Bennion by George Handley.

My Overview

This book is an excellent series of essays exploring what I believe an absolutely vital topic: what happens when your conscience conflicts with institutional authority? The Church’s implicit answer to this, is that (a.) this shouldn’t happen too often, because Church leaders are good people, so don’t worry about it or (b.) your Church leaders lead by revelation, so you shouldn’t question what they say (pray harder). These issues didn’t seem relevant to me before my mission; any talk of challenging Church authority seemed to have the taint of apostasy. And I would fathom a guess that many still feel that way. It was on my mission when I first encountered a conflict between a my conscience and a Church leader’s answer. To give one (very small) example. In my mission, we were strong discouraged from giving money to panhandlers; as our monthly allowance was “sacred funds”, it was a misuse of the Lord’s money. I would occasionally “give in” to my conscience, and give an euro or two to a stranger in need, risking the chastisement of my companion. And I would always be thinking of ways that I could get around it: could be carry a bag of apples or snacks that we could give? In another instance at the close of the day, a man on a train approached us who said he was a member of the Church from Bulgaria. He said that he had accepted a job offer here in Germany, but that the employer ended up being a scam artist, and he was stranded here in Germany with no money to get home. He was only asking us for a place to stay the night. We called the mission president to see what we could do. He said that we shouldn’t feel responsible for providing this man with a place to stay, that he himself was likely a scam artist, and that we should try to talk ourselves out of it and get home (after all, it was almost 9:00!). I was agonizing over the situation, and I chose to stay with the man and try to find a local homeless shelter. I wasn’t familiar with these kinds of services, so I tried to ask around at the train station. Eventually, I suppose the man was feeling bad, and he apologized to us for being a burden, and he left us with a friendly wave. I felt so bad that we weren’t able to do something to help this man. What was I supposed to do in that kind of situation?

That’s perhaps just a small example, but moments like really challenged me. What do you do when your conscience and institutional authority conflict? The book’s introduction frames the question in these terms:

[The conference that led to these essays] considered how these three men, so tightly bound to their community, sought in Kathleen Flake’s words “independence within, not from Mormonism.” If they bridled at hierarchy and orthodoxy, they found in Mormonism’s teachings and traditions opportunities to confront the pressing social, cultural, and political issues of the time. Their personalities and individual circumstances defined their quests for balance between conscience and community.

I feel like these essays are a good model for how to live within that tension. I don’t think that staying silent and going with the flow is a good answer. And I don’t feel like leaving the Church is a good answer either. I liked Bennion’s advice to Emma Lou Warner Thayne: Stay in the Church. It’s a lot more rewarding there than on the outside. And I liked Sterling McMurrin’s humorous aside with his nephew: Come up to our place and we’ll see if Natalie has a cold drink for us. We can sit around and criticize the Church for a while. If anything, they modeled that we should simultaneously not take ourselves too seriously while taking matters of conscience very seriously.

A Few Quotes

Here are a few of my favorite selections from the book. I felt a deep respect for Lowell Bennion when he expressed his views on the priesthood ban in a debate with BYU professor Chauncey Riddle:

Riddle abruptly asked, “Is it moral to deny the Negro the priesthood?” Bennion responded with another question: “What would you do if you were taught facts contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ and your inspiration after thoughtful… prayer?” Riddle replied, “If we challenge a revelation on the basis of whether it is moral or not we are on shaky ground.”

Bennion’s gentle reply: “I an willing to walk by faith in darkness, but when I am called upon to do something that is against… what I think is the heart and soul of the gospel… I just can’t be happy with the present practice of the church to deny the Negro the priesthood.”

I was surprised, but also appreciative, of Obert’s recollection of his mother’s approach to parenting:

With her husband almost always absent, Annie was essentially a single mother, and she crafted this culture in accordance with her deepest values. She based her philosophy of child rearing on John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, which she read many times, and the evidence is clear that she made her home into a profoundly liberal institution. There was a price to pay for this in how she and her family were regarded by some of their neighbors, and her husband made his own demands for stronger domestic discipline, but she opposed them. He once said to her, “You’re children don’t know the first letter in the word obedience.” She replied, “That’s strange, they suit me splendidly.”

And I liked McMurrin’s description of the space he had carved out for himself in the Church:

When he met with LDS Apostles Joseph Fielding Smith and Harold B. Lee (his cousin) in the summer of 1952, and flatly rejected his religion’s major tenets, he walked home with what he described as the most free and joyous feeling of his life. He had found peace in simple honesty. From that time forward, McMurrin defined himself, publicly and privately, as a “good heretic.” He would say, “A heretic does not believe the tenets of his religion. But I’m not against the church, I’m for it. That’s what I’m a good heretic.”…

I was asked recently, “Why didn’t Sterling McMurrin leave the church?” I asked him that too– and he responded with a quizzical look, “To go where?” He happily embraced his role as Mormonism’s most eloquent and prominent spokesperson when the national press sought a candid perspective on issues affecting the faith. Besides, he said on many occasions, “What could be more entertaining than to watch all the foolishness the apostles engage in while trying to defend some of their indefensible positions. Like keeping the priesthood from blacks.”

The Good and the Bad

Two introductory essays, three essays on each of the cast of characters, and two closing essays, including a discussion with family members of the three. It includes more personal essays, and other essays that engage with ideas, so you get a well-rounded view of each person. I didn’t find one that felt dry, so no problems there. I was particularly excited about reading Kathleen Flake’s and Greg Prince’s essays. Of them all, I think I liked The “Old Orthodoxy” on McMurrin by Brian Birch the best, as Birch was personally acquainted with McMurrin, and by the tone of the essay, sometimes couldn’t quite get McMurrin! I think I would probably disagree with him a time or two as well!

A great collection– I’m going to try to hit some of the primary sources referenced in the book.

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