Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Difficulty of Deciphering Spiritual Communication

This post and the next are intended to provide some sort of context for many topics I will write about in the future, including several on various aspects of the Book of Mormon. Let me start by making a general observation. Sometimes in the Church we get the idea that in both our personal lives and our institutional experience the Lord guides us in an unmistakably clear manner. I would suggest, though, based on my own personal experience, conversations with others, and my observations of Church leaders at both the local and general level, that spiritual communication—revelation, if you will—can be devilishly difficult to decipher.
*  *  *
Story #1. A few months more than 40 years ago, I trekked with the rest of the Eppendorf zone on a crisp February morning out to the chapel in Pinneberg, a small city just northwest of Hamburg, where we held a zone conference. The day was memorable for several reasons, but primarily for a promise we received from one of the president’s assistants. I don’t remember the exact context in which this promise was given, and for the life of me I can’t figure out why this promise came from an assistant and not the president himself, but I still remember Elder Smart (not his real name) standing in front of all 22 of us, raising his right arm to the square and saying something very close to this: “I promise you, in the name of Jesus Christ, that if you work 55 hours each week during the month of March, someone you are teaching right now will be baptized.”
Okay, I know what you’re thinking. I’m thinking it too. Right now, sitting here at the computer 40 years later, I want to scream out, “You can’t make a promise like that! You just CAN’T! There’s something we call agency that won’t allow it. There are all sorts of theological problems with a promise like that.” The other thing you’re probably thinking is that 55 hours isn’t very much. For a promise like that wouldn’t a slightly greater sacrifice be in order? Say, 70 hours, or even 80? Well, you need to realize that under this mission president, travel time did not count as “work” time. And we were on bikes for the most part, so any time we spent pedaling from here to there (and we did a fair amount of that) didn’t factor into the total hours. Not only did this keep our hours down, but it was also a record-keeping nightmare. Our second mission president rectified this. His philosophy was that as soon as we left the apartment in the morning, we were on the Lord’s errand.
But all this is beside the point. The point is what happened after the assistant made the promise. At least for me, the promise hit like a hammer to the forehead. A force I clearly assumed was the Holy Ghost confirmed to me in a rather powerful way that the promise was true. I assumed the other 21 missionaries felt the same thing I did, because when the assistant asked us all to raise our arms to the square and commit to work those 55 hours, 21 arms shot up. Yes, 21. Everyone except my companion. I could have strangled him. It turns out he was simply worried that he might get sick or have a bike accident (which, ironically, he did) or be prevented by something beyond his control from working the 55 hours. Well, after a heart-to-heart talk with one of the zone leaders, who explained that this sort of going-out-on-a-limb is actually what faith is all about, my companion likewise made the promise.
And in spite of the bike accident, we did work 55 hours every week in March. And nobody got baptized. Of this I am quite, but not 100 percent, sure. First, we had very few investigators, and none were really interested. I know that none of them got baptized before I went home more than a year later. Yes, I know that the promise was a bit vague. It didn’t specify when the baptism would occur. No grand deadline. So, who knows, maybe next year someone we were teaching at the time will finally take the plunge. But I know what was intended with the promise, and it wasn’t that 41 years down the road somebody would be baptized. The implied message was that the baptism would happen soon. But just to be sure, just to give that stroke of inspiration a fair chance, I’ve done due diligence in following up. I’ve kept in touch with some of the members in that ward. One even ended up married to the stake president, and several years ago I talked him into sending me a ward list. None of the names matched. Yes, I realize that one of our investigators may have moved and was baptized somewhere else. But I covered that that possibility too. When I was working at Church magazines, I could get member information if I had good reason. I figured this was a good reason (it would have made a darn good story), so I sent the membership information folks a request to see if any of the names of people we were teaching back in 1976 showed up on Church records. Nope. Not one. Since then I’ve let it drop. I know what I felt at the time. And I’ve had to look for other explanations.
All I can assume is that I either misinterpreted what I felt or that the feeling was something from inside me rather than from outside. After 40 years, it’s impossible to say. What I do know, from this and other experiences, is that deciphering spiritual feelings and promptings and confirmations is no easy matter. It’s not an exact science; at least it isn’t for me, and apparently for many others too.
*  *  *
Story #2. Let’s fast-forward a few years. In the fall of 1980, I moved into a new BYU student ward. The first Sunday I was not at church. As I recall, I was home in Ogden. The next Saturday, though, we had a ward activity up Provo Canyon. While there, I met the new elders quorum president, Paul (his real name). He seemed unusually curious about me. I didn’t think much of it until the next day, when I was called to be his first counselor. Then he told me the backstory. The previous week, he had looked high and low for his counselors. He found his second counselor, but somehow he knew his first counselor was not there. When he saw me at the ward party, though, he said he immediately knew he had found his missing counselor. I was impressed. Who am I to argue with that sort of inspiration?
The next summer Paul got married, and I was called to replace him. Now it was my turn to find counselors in the upheaval that is normal from year to year in student wards. Paul’s second counselor became my first counselor. That was easy. But I needed to find a second counselor. So Steve and I went visiting. We dropped in on all the men’s apartments in the ward, trying to tap into some spiritual vibes about the elders, most of whom were new. There were two who stood out. I had a very positive feeling about one, but I had a rather intense impression about the other. The former became my counselor. The latter pulled me aside on the landing outside his apartment as we were leaving to quietly inform me that he couldn’t hold any callings in the ward because he had been excommunicated. He had been rebaptized and was awaiting the restoration of his priesthood and temple blessings. By the end of the school year, that restoration happened.
This experience taught me something about how difficult it is to decipher the message in some spiritual promptings. Based on the relative intensity of the feelings I had, I would have selected the second of the two to be my counselor. But my interpretation was off. Not far off, but off. Something very good was happening in this young man’s life. I apparently sensed this. But I had no clue what the feeling meant.
Now, in using my own experiences to make this point, I should confess that there are certainly many members of the Church (and many non-Mormons) who are much better at understanding spiritual communication than I am. But I still maintain that this is not an exact science, even for bishops and stake presidents and apostles and prophets.
*  *  *
Story #3. This one comes from Elder Gerald N. Lund. “When I was serving as a bishop some years ago, a colleague and I were talking about giving priesthood blessings and the importance of staying in tune. He then shared an experience he had had when he was a young bishop. He said he had received a call in the middle of the night to go to the hospital. A woman in the ward had collapsed into unconsciousness as she was preparing for bed. Now she lay in a coma. The desperate husband asked the bishop to come and help administer to her. When the bishop arrived, the man was so distraught he asked the bishop to give the blessing. ‘It was a deeply emotional moment,’ my friend said. ‘This couple had five children still in the home. The doctors weren’t yet sure what was wrong, but her vital signs were dropping steadily. As I began the blessing, suddenly I had this overwhelming feeling of peace and light come over me. I stopped for a moment and looked into my heart. Was this really from the Lord or just me, I wondered. I had never experienced anything so powerful before, and I decided the feeling was truly from the Lord.’
“Relieved to have such clear direction, he proceeded with the blessing. ‘I promised her that she would be healed, that she would be raised from the bed of her afflictions, that she would have the privilege of raising her children to adulthood in this life.’ The former bishop stopped, searching my face. ‘It was a wonderful experience. I wept for joy. The husband did as well.’ Then, in a very soft voice, he concluded. ‘But I had been home for only a few hours when the husband called to tell me that his wife had passed away without regaining consciousness.’”
Elder Lund then asks these questions: “Did these powerful feelings just come from his own emotions, from his earnest—and righteous—desire to bless a family in crisis? Or was the experience real, but in his eagerness to help, he put his own interpretation on what the feelings meant? Is it possible that we can have true spiritual experiences and yet misinterpret them?”1
I would suggest that the answer to any of these questions might well be yes. Especially to the last question.
*  *  *
In a previous posts, I have mentioned the experience my wife had of receiving the call to be Primary president but, after saying yes, having very troubling feelings about the call. She went to the bishop and told him about her feelings. He prayed about it and got a different answer the second time. “Sister Terry, this call is not for you right now.” Circumstances soon revealed why, and a few years later the same call came without the troubling feelings. The relevant point here, though, is that the bishop had misinterpreted a spiritual confirmation. When questioned, he went to the Lord and got a different message. Or maybe it was the same message, but the second time he had more information or was more open to a different answer and therefore interpreted the message more accurately.
In a different previous post, I also mentioned the story a friend of mine told me about his sister-in-law, who was promised by an Apostle in a priesthood blessing that she would be healed from her cancer. Within months she was dead. So it’s not just local leaders who are prone to misinterpreting the Spirit now and then. Church history, if you read enough of it, is full of examples of inspiration gone awry, including prophecies that didn’t get fulfilled. If the prophets had been right, we would now be in Jackson County and the Second Coming would have already happened.
In recent years, I have witnessed firsthand as friends and fellow ward members have been stricken with cancer. They have prayed and felt very strongly that God was telling them they would be healed. Priesthood blessings confirmed these feelings. But after intense suffering, they died. How, especially when we are in our extremity, can we tell the difference between the spiritual message we desperately want God to give us and our own desperate feelings? This is a question that I believe has no reliable answer.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Church leaders and ordinary members are always wrong. Quite often they get it right. But we need to be honest with ourselves and admit that this process of discerning the meaning of spiritual communication is not an easy thing to master. And if Joseph Smith struggled with it too, then we shouldn’t feel too bad when we misunderstand.
In my own life, I figure I’ve been right about half the time, which isn’t a very good track record. Maybe that’s why I don’t trust my feelings much anymore. They’ve betrayed me too often. So I’m a bit gun-shy.
*  *  *
A few years ago, I wrote an essay2 for Dialogue in which I described a rather impressive spiritual manifestation that I shared with two other people—my missionary companion and the investigator we were teaching. At the time of the experience and in that essay, I interpreted the manifestation to be a confirmation of the truth of “everything” about Mormonism. But since then I’ve learned a great deal more about what “everything” entails. I’ve had to scale back my interpretation to the actual context in which the manifestation occurred. I can say now only that it confirmed to me that Joseph Smith did indeed experience a vision in which he saw the Father and the Son. But beyond that I’m not sure the manifestation had much relevance. Part of the reason I’ve had to reconsider my interpretation of this experience is that the investigator, who shared the same spiritual outpouring, interpreted it far differently than I did. She eventually determined that it did not communicate anything about the truthfulness of Mormonism and therefore decided not to be baptized.
A final story may provide a good summary for what I am trying to say in this post. About halfway through my mission, we were teaching a woman—let’s call her Frau Tiedemann—whose husband was a tobacco salesman, not a good profession for a Mormon. But his wife was intrigued by our message. One morning, my companion—let’s call him Elder Chatwin—answered the phone. It was Frau Tiedemann, and she was hysterical. She had had some sort of dream. My companion calmed her down a bit and assured her we’d come right over. When we arrived, she told us a strange tale. In the middle of the night, she had had a very vivid dream in which she was surrounded by fire. Her children were screaming for help, but she couldn’t get to them. This woke her, and she sat up in bed. She said a power came over her so that she could not move. Then a voice spoke to her. It said, roughly translated, “Chatwin is right. Watch over your family.” It repeated this same message five times. Then the power left, and she was able to move. She woke her husband up. He was not impressed. He told her it was just the strawberries and cream she’d eaten before going to bed. But she was convinced her children were in mortal danger. We assured her it was probably a spiritual message and had something to do with her children’s eternal welfare. Of course we did. We were missionaries.
Well, Frau Tiedemann decided that she should be baptized. Her husband got scared and refused to hear of it. She never did get baptized. But I’ve thought often about the cryptic message she received in the dead of the night. If the voice, whatever its source, wanted her to be baptized, why didn’t it say, “Chatwin is right. You need to be baptized into the LDS Church.” For whatever reason, the voice gave a message that could be interpreted in a variety of ways. And so it goes. As I’ve considered both my own experiences and those that others describe, I’ve decided that God does not very often give spiritual messages that are absolutely clear and can be interpreted in only one way. Quite often they are nothing more than a strong feeling.
Perhaps there’s a reason for this. Although in Mormonism we tend to speak in terms of certainty, quite often our spiritual knowledge may be far less certain than we assume. And this leaves plenty of room for faith. Maybe in the Church we need to start talking more about faith and belief and less about knowledge. Perhaps we’ve placed far too much emphasis on testimony and haven’t considered carefully enough what we believe. After all, our first article of faith says nothing about sure knowledge. The first principle of the gospel is not certainty; it is faith.
1. Gerald N. Lund, Hearing the Voice of the Lord: Principles and Patterns of Personal Revelation (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2007), 8–9.
2. Roger Terry, “Frau RĂ¼ster and the Cure for Cognitive Dissonance,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 40, no. 3 (2007): 201–10;

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Honesty and Presidential Politics

I’ve seen claims among Republicans that Hillary Clinton is as dishonest as Donald Trump (or more), which they use as justification for voting for the blustery billionaire. And of course The Donald himself has labeled Clinton (along with most of his Republican challengers) as dishonest. With Trump’s legacy of bankrupt businesses, defrauded students, and stiffed subcontractors, it is stupefying that he has the gall to call anyone dishonest.
So, what’s the truth? Just for fun, I went to PolitiFact, the Pulitzer Prize–winning fact checker, to see how the candidates stack up in their campaign claims. PolitiFact rates candidate statements as True, Mostly True, Half True, Mostly False, False, and, for the real whoppers, Pants on Fire. Anyway, here are the results (so far). The first number in each category is the number of statements that qualified for that rating. The second number is the percentage of total statements falling in a particular category.
Donald Trump
  • True                           3               2%
  • Mostly True             11               7%
  • Half True                 24             15%
  • Mostly False            25             16%
  • False                        64             41%
  • Pants on Fire           30             19%
Hillary Clinton
  • True                         47             22%
  • Mostly True             58            28%
  • Half True                 45             22%
  • Mostly False            32             15%
  • False                        24             11%
  • Pants on Fire             3               1%
Bernie Sanders
  • True                         14             14%
  • Mostly True             38             38%
  • Half True                 19             19%
  • Mostly False            18             18%
  • False                        12             12%
  • Pants on Fire             0               0%
A couple of observations are in order here. The first is obvious. Trump, as everybody should know by now, is one of the most dishonest politicians to ever run for president of the United States. Tossing out the “half true” statements as somewhat neutral, we find that Trump is lying 76 percent of the time and is honest only 9 percent of the time. I’ll do the math for you. He lies 8.44 times as often as he tells the truth. This should surprise no one who has watched him over the course of his very public and self-promotional career. Given his distaste for truth, we really ought to wonder what his tax returns would reveal. I’m sure he has very good reasons for keeping them under wraps. His business practices are now coming to light, and it isn’t pretty.
By contrast and using the same metric, Clinton is honest 50 percent of the time and dishonest 27 percent of the time. Not as truthful as I would like, but not even in the same area code as Trump. If you look at just “Pants on Fire” statements, Trump has told 10 times as many whoppers as Clinton. The percentage of whoppers is even larger—Trump lights his pants on fire 19 times as frequently as Clinton ignites her pantsuits. The disparity is because Clinton has made more total statements, which I’ll get to in a minute.
I tossed Bernie “Feel the Bern” Sanders into the mix for comparison. He tells the truth 52 percent of the time and is dishonest 30 percent of the time, with no “Pants on Fire” ratings, perhaps because he tends to be a one-note symphony and that note is actually very easy to play. So, he tells the truth 2 percent more often than Clinton and lies 3 percent more often. Very close.
The second observation is the total number of statements rated for each candidate. Clinton’s total is 209. Trump rings in at a 157. And Bernie has been rated on 101. Why the big discrepancy? I can’t be sure, but I do have a theory. It may be because Clinton has been around longer and therefore has a longer track record. But these figures are supposed to be for the 2016 election cycle, so I don’t buy that explanation. My theory is that Clinton is a policy wonk and therefore understands the issues in greater detail and speaks on more of them than her two competitors. As I said, Sanders is somewhat a one-note symphony, so we shouldn’t be surprised that Clinton has made more than twice as many ratable statements. And Trump has also limited himself primarily to a few of his pet topics, which he bludgeons repeatedly and in new and imaginative ways.
       What about the three Republican candidates who lasted longest, though? How do they stack up? Well, Ted Cruz’s numbers look a lot like Trump’s. He was honest 22 percent of the time and dishonest 64 percent, with 7 percent “Pants on Fire.” Marco Rubio was a little better, with 36 percent truthful, 41 percent untruthful, and 3 percent “Pants on Fire.” John Kasich came out looking, well, not like a Republican, which may explain his low appeal factor. He was honest 53 percent of the time and dishonest 32 percent, with 5 percent “Pants on Fire.”
For another interesting comparison, let’s look at the two major candidates for president in 2012. President Obama, according to PolitiFact, was truthful 48 percent of the time and untruthful 26 percent of the time, with 2 percent “Pants on Fire.” Fairly similar to Clinton’s numbers this time around, but with more “half true” statements. Mitt Romney’s numbers might surprise some Mormons. He was honest (truthful or mostly so) only 31 percent of the time, and he was dishonest 42 percent of the time, with 9 percent “Pants on Fire” ratings (slightly worse than Rubio). In other words, not only was President Obama more truthful than Mitt Romney, but Romney was untruthful more frequently than he was truthful. He even garnered the “Lie of the Year” award in 2012 for a whopper about Jeep moving its production to China, a lie Romney repeated even after Jeep had set the record straight. As a Latter-day Saint, I was rather disappointed that a former stake president would be so cavalier with the truth.
I know what my Republican friends will say next. The fact-checkers are biased. But PolitiFact, as mentioned above, won a Pulitzer for its work, and it has been criticized by liberals, conservatives, and independents (which means it is probably doing a pretty good job). I don’t buy the bias argument. If we were talking about Fox News or MSNBC, I would, but not PolitiFact. I’ve read the explanations for many of their rulings. They do their homework and seem fair and evenhanded.
So what’s going on here? Perhaps it’s not the fact-checkers that are biased. Perhaps it’s the facts themselves. As Nobel Prize–winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman likes to remind us, the facts tend to have a liberal bias. This is fairly obvious in areas such as economics and global warming, but this generalization holds true for a surprising number of issues.
Of course Trump is in a category all his own (which is only appropriate), but as I’ve watched Republican candidates lay out their positions on various issues, it seems that in order to make sense of many of these stances, candidates have to be rather inventive (remember Romney’s infamous 47 percent?). To use economics as an example, any argument to support the virtues of supply-side economics is going to have to rely on a fair amount of fiction. The numbers simply don’t add up. Remember Paul Ryan’s magic asterisks in his balanced budget? And he’s supposed to be the brains of the GOP. Well, every single Republican candidate this election cycle (all sixteen or seventeen of them) pushed economic plans that the nonpartisan experts rated as somewhere between horrible and disastrous, with Trump taking the cake with a plan that would add $10.5 trillion to the debt, beyond the weight it would have gained anyway, over the next ten years. And the following decade would be even worse. And of course all the candidates touted the brilliance of their economic plans, hinting if not claiming outright that they could cut taxes on the wealthy, increase defense spending, and balance the budget at the same time. Magic asterisks on steroids.
This week Krugman has written a rather brutal column in which he wonders why none of Trump’s Republican challengers were able to take him down and asks whether Clinton will have the same problem. His explanation must be seriously considered. He suggests that none of the Republican challengers could expose Trump as a con man because they were each running a con of their own, just on a much smaller scale. And the party itself seems hell-bent on helping the crooks.
Writes Krugman, “Consider this: Even as the newspapers are filled with stories of defrauded students and stiffed contractors, Republicans in Congress are going all-out in efforts to repeal the so-called ‘fiduciary rule’ for retirement advisers, a new rule requiring that they serve the interests of their clients, and not receive kickbacks for steering them into bad investments. Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House, has even made repealing that rule part of his ‘anti-poverty plan.’ So the G.O.P. is in effect defending the right of the financial industry to mislead its customers, which makes it hard to attack the likes of Donald Trump.”
Krugman continues: “It’s interesting to note that Marco Rubio actually did try to make Trump University an issue, but he did it too late, after he had already made himself a laughingstock with his broken-record routine. . . . The point is that Mr. Rubio was just as much a con artist as Mr. Trump—just not as good at it, which is why, under pressure, he kept repeating the same memorized words. So he, like all the G.O.P. contenders, didn’t have what it would have taken to make Mr. Trump’s grifting an issue. . . .
“In the months ahead Republicans will claim that there are equivalent scandals on the Democratic side, but nothing they’ve managed to come up with rises remotely to the level of even one of the many Trump scams in the news. They’ll also claim that Mr. Trump doesn’t reflect their party’s values. But the truth is that in a very deep sense he does. And that’s why they couldn’t stop him.”
Some Republicans are shocked at where Trump is leading their party, while others are playing a game of moral Twister, trying to contort their values so that they can justify voting for Trump. But what they need to understand is that Trump is not an aberration. He is the predictable result of the path they have been pursuing for some time now. He has not only tapped into the latent racism and anger and bigotry in the extreme faction that has taken over the Republican Party, but he has also taken its inherent untruthfulness on many issues to new levels. Pardon the pun, but perhaps it is fitting that the GOP is the self-proclaimed con-servative party.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Wallace Stegner and Jesse Knight

Earlier this year I was editing an article that referenced Wallace Stegner’s Mormon Country. Usually our student interns do the source checks for articles, but in this particular article a piece of information was unclear even after the source check, so I wandered over to the Harold B. Lee Library and checked out Stegner’s take on the Mormons. In searching the book for the information I needed, I read enough to realize I had missed something special in ignoring Stegner for all these years, so I decided to hang onto the book for a while and read it, a few pages a day to break up the monotony of fixing punctuation and the frustration of filling in gaps that authors should have filled.
About two hundred pages in, I came to Stegner’s entertaining account of Jesse Knight, Provo’s own Warren Buffett. Knight’s tale is a good follow-up to my last post about inequality, because he wasn’t happy unless he was using his massive wealth to lift up the common people (and get the Church out of debt to boot). Jesse Knight was born the year after Joseph Smith was killed, and his family was poor. His father, Newel, died in 1847 on the trail west. It wasn’t until Jesse was about fifty years old that he “discovered” the Humbug Mine in the Tintic Mining District near Eureka. According to Stegner, Jesse didn’t just happen upon the Humbug Mine. He had a “manifestation” about it. In fact, he had lots of manifestations, and they led him to many productive veins of valuable ore. By the 1890s, of course, Brigham’s united orders had vanished, so there was nothing to prevent Uncle Jesse from accumulating as much wealth as he possibly could. Nothing, that is, except the knowledge that the wealth wasn’t his. God had made him rich, and he knew what God wanted him to do with his money.
Stegner draws a distinct contrast between the Gentile mining camps, with their saloons and bawdy-houses and frequent murders, and Knightsville, where Jesse built a ward house and an amusement hall, organized a school and hired a teacher, paid his workers 25 cents a day more than the going wage and gave them Sundays off, and prohibited tobacco and alcohol.
He didn’t stop at mining. He “built sampling plants, smelters, railroads, mills. In the second decade of the twentieth century he was probably the largest single holder of patented mining interests in the intermountain country. He had the stewardship of all the money he could want, as his initial manifestation had promised him he would. There is something very close to inspiring in the way he used that money.” First, “he paid all his back tithing, with compound interest, for the years in which he had ignored the Church.” And then he set up what today we would probably call microcredit, loaning money to “impoverished brethren.” But he decided there had to be a better way of helping the poor “than lending them money and putting them deeper in the hole.”
So he spent money to put people to work. According to Stegner, “he embarked on a many-sided program of social amelioration. He was a one-man resettlement plan, WPA, Reclamation Service, RFC, FHA, PWA, anticipating by thirty years many of the New Deal’s social experiments, doing it out of no obligation other than the obligation he felt he owed his Church and particularly his people. In other words, he felt his money keenly, and he turned it to social rather than personal uses.” He was no modern conservative, free-market, despise-the-47-percent, anti-share-the-wealth, pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps brand of ideologue. “He did his best to redistribute [his wealth] where it might do some good.”
He bought a township and a half in Alberta, Canada, and four thousand head of cattle, and opened a ranch. The next year he bought 226,00 additional acres, agreed to build a beet factory and keep it open for twelve years, laid out a townsite, and sold land to Mormons for whom there was none left in Utah. “On Knight’s townsite a man could buy ten acres of plowed land, ready for planting, at ten dollars an acre with no money due for three years.” He put people to work, at his own expense. When the Canadian officials asked him what on earth he was doing, wasting his fortune like this, he pulled out President Snow’s message and read it to them: “Men and women of wealth, use your riches to give employment to the laborer! Take the idle from the crowded centers of population and place them on the untilled acres that await the hand of industry. Unlock your vault, unloose your purses.” Uncle Jesse took this message personally.
When I read this, I couldn’t help wondering what would happen today if President Monson gave a similar charge in general conference this fall. Of course, in today’s world it wouldn’t make sense to set the needy up on their own little farms. But what if the wealthy, instead of trying to minimize labor costs and maximize their own wealth, took a page from Jesse Knight’s book and hired people at more than market wages? What if they set up businesses that weren’t intended to make a profit but to provide a valuable product and employ people? How different would our economy be?
But Jesse didn’t stop even here. He sold seven electric power plants and used the proceeds (minus tithing) to set up “a personal WPA project. Because there was a good deal of unemployment around Provo, he undertook to build at his own expense . . . a scenic highline drive along the foot of the Wasatch between Provo and Springville, ornamenting it with walnut trees, grapevines, and a concrete waterway. It didn’t, as a matter of fact, get finished, but it got started, and it did the job Jesse wanted it to do.” It employed people in a meaningful endeavor.
But Jesse didn’t stop there either. I work at BYU. That university would certainly not exist today if Jesse Knight had not kept it afloat during its lean years. “He gave land, built buildings, handed over fat envelopes full of bonds, came to commencement and talked to the graduating classes on how to live a good life.” There is a building on campus named after him. I studied in it and taught in it. I’m sure he wouldn’t have asked that his name adorn a building for his donations as so many philanthropists today demand. And something in me wants to say that if you need your name on something because of your generosity, you aren’t really a philanthropist anyway. Years ago, when I was editing the Marriott School’s alumni magazine, I was in the loop on publicizing major gifts to the school. Almost every wealthy donor insisted on having his name on a chair or a professorship. But I remember one donor who refused to have anything named after him. I know his name, but I’m not going to reveal it. He insisted on giving anonymously. The professorship he funded carried an innocuous but descriptive title. I’m sure Uncle Jesse would have been proud of him.
I don’t think we’ve seen anything like Jesse Knight in all the years between his death and today. On a smaller scale perhaps Alan Ashton is following in his footsteps. Jon Huntsman too. In certain respects, so are Larry Miller and his family. There are probably others. But there should be many, many more. When push comes to shove, though, Jesse was a one of a kind.
Wallace Stegner’s conclusion to Jesse Knight’s story is sobering and thought-provoking. Jesse Knight, he says, “underlined the differences between Mormon and Gentile philosophies. His abiding sense of the group and the group’s needs, his respect for the common man, and his concept of money as an instrument of social betterment were a reflection of that part of Mormonism—unhappily weaker than it used to be—which was unerringly prophetic. And there is one of the curious facts about Mormonism in general: the prophetic elements of its doctrine, the advanced social program, all those points of belief and system which pointed toward a planned economy, have grown weaker in Mormonism as they acquired strength and followers in the world at large. As the Gentile society which in the beginning matched the profit motive against Mormonism’s hope of Heaven begins gradually to readjust itself, having gone as far as it can go, Mormonism reveals itself as an economic empire, an empire of dollars instead of the dreamed-of empire of men. By the time the world knows enough to learn from Mormonism and other societies with a similar sense of dedication to an ideal, Mormonism has been converted to the other side. At least the Church has.”
He wrote this in 1942. I wonder what he would say today.