Orson F. Whitney biography captures the contradictions of faith

Wednesday , July 09, 2014 - 7:57 PM

Orson F. Whitney, an apostle for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for almost a quarter century in the early part of the 20th century, is perhaps best known today for a 1929 speech delivered a little more than a year before his death.

As Dennis Horne, author of the new biography, “The Life of Orson F. Whitney,” Cedar Fort Inc., notes, at the April 1929 LDS General Conference, Whitney promised faithful parents that their wayward children would be saved if they, the parents, remained faithful to their spiritual covenants. “Pray for your careless and disobedient children; hold on to them with your faith. Hope on, trust on, ’till you see the salvation of God,” Whitney promised in his discourse.

As Horne mentions, Whitney was certainly thinking of his eldest son, Horace “Race” Whitney, who had strayed from his parents’ faith. Race Whitney, a journalist and hopeful playwright, had been married and divorced twice -- to the same woman -- before he died of causes related to alcoholism at age 28.

Whitney is frankly more of a Wikipedia entry than a well-known historical figure of Mormonism.

Horne has affectionately focused on a life that bridged early Utah Mormonism to 20th century growth of the religion (1855-1930).

Using mostly the subject’s diary entries and autobiography, the author has constructed a life story interesting as much for its contradictions and secrets as for Whitney’s several-decades devotion to Mormonism. After a rocky start to adulthood, Whitney -- the son of Horace K. Whitney and Helen Mar Kimball, plural wife to Joseph Smith Jr. -- served a mission to Ohio and Pennsylvania at the age of 21. 

Now entrenched in his family faith, a new Salt Lake City bishop, Whitney married his first wife Zina Beal Smoot, and a year later, the new father was shipped to a second mission across the Atlantic Ocean to England where the first contradictions and secrets of Whitney’s life are revealed.

As Horne notes, Whitney was an emotional man, susceptible to praise and flattery. He also was a literary man, who would later write a four-volume History of Utah, two novel-size poems, and ghost write many articles for LDS leaders.

In England, Whitney entered a mission that was rife with dysfunctional behavior. The mission president, LDS apostle Albert Carrington, was later excommunicated for adultery while serving as mission leader and another missionary, Charles W. Stayner, was preaching a version of Mormonism that included reincarnation. During the mission, Whitney apparently made an energetic attempt to make a 16-year-old girl convert his plural wife, but was stymied by her mother’s objections.

As Horne relates, Whitney became a convert of Stayner’s theories for almost two decades, and was a driving force of a semi-secret Mormon group that discussed reincarnation and devised strategies to make Stayner the eventual prophet of the LDS Church. In fact, as his devotion to Stayner increased, Whitney partially supported his friend at the expense of his own family, and even lobbied LDS Church President Lorenzo Snow on reincarnation and Stayner.

During much of this time, Whitney was both a bishop and assistant church historian, as well as a noted author and poet in Utah. While it’s likely his long flirtation with reincarnation delayed his calling as an apostle, it never seemed close to harming his church membership, even as apostles and others publicly denounced the reincarnation doctrine.

It’s hard not to compare Whitney’s late 19th century obsession with changing the church’s position on reincarnation with the current Ordain Woman movement. The former, of course, did not lead to excommunication. Eventually Stayner, still a member of the church, died and soon afterward Whitney recanted his divergent beliefs, which essentially paved his way to an apostleship.

Horne’s biography is hampered because Whitney destroyed and edited large portions of his diary as he grew older. Examples of tampered diary entries include his relationships with Stayner, the English convert teen, some entries on reincarnation, and emotional affairs with some women (most notably Mary Laura Hickman) that Whitney would have clearly chosen as plural wives had he been allowed.

After the Second Manifesto of 1904, the LDS church hierarchy cracked down on polygamy, severely disciplining those who continued the principle. After he became an apostle in 1906, Horne notes that Whitney had the unpleasant task of disciplining longtime church members for polygamy, including former apostle and mentor John W. Taylor.

Whitney still believed in polygamy privately. There also is another confidante of Whitney’s, named “Dick,” who may have had the same Svengali-like effect on the apostle that Stayner once had. As with other potentially controversial aspects of his life, much of that subject was self-censored.

Before his first wife died in 1900, Whitney had one plural wife, Mary (May) Minerva Wells, the sister of a woman he had loved as a youth who had died. They had two children quickly but then were childless, although they stayed married until Whitney’s death. Frankly, there is not much of May in the diaries that Horne shares in his biography (Mary Laura Hickman is far more often on Whitney’s mind, for example) and one suspects that the couple’s relationship may have been strained.

Whitney’s health began to fail when he was called to be the LDS European Mission president in the early 1920s. The strain of dealing with a media assault on Mormonism in that country and added health problems to his prostate and kidney left him an invalid who could not even read by the time he returned to Utah. He regained his strength and served admirably as an apostle for the rest of his life.

In another example of his life of bridging generations, he was one of the first LDS leaders to often speak on KSL Radio. He died of pneumonia about a month after giving his final conference talk in April 1930.

Horne’s biography is an affectionate account of a man who deeply loved his religion and the men who led it. A bishop for three decades and apostle for 24 years, he expended all his talents, including writing and speaking, for his faith. As the book notes, he had failings and crisis of faith. That makes him real, and much preferable to the plaster saints that are sometimes constructed in hagiographies.

The biography is available at http://deseretbook.com/Life-Orson-F-Whitney-Dennis-B-Horne/i/5124486.

dgibson@standard.net

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