Reviews – An Abundant Life: The Memoirs of Hugh B. Brown
BYU Studies, Richard Poll
Reading The Memoirs of Hugh B. Brown was like visiting with an old and admired friend. President Brown was a faculty colleague when I came to Brigham Young University in 1948. He was an adviser and strategically situated helper in the 1960s, when several campus developments engaged the attention of members of the baord of trustees. And he was an amiable commentator as Eugene Campbell and I put together the biography that reached the bookstores ten days after his death in 1975.
Several factors fully justify the publication of this memoir, even though it contains little new biographical information. First, it reintroduces to the Church a man who is unknown, except for occasional quotations in authorized lesson manuals, to a majority of today’s Latter-day Saints. Second, it presents in context most of the famous Hugh B. Brown stories, some of which still circulate in audiotape format. Third, it offers some of the sage advice that made President Brown a special resource for two generations of young people who faced the challenges of understanding and applying the gospel in a changing world. Fourth, it looks at the institutional Church in terms that are a useful corrective to dogmas of prophetic infallibility and scriptural inerrancy. Fifth, it reminds those who knew him, personally or as a powerful pulpit figure, of why Hugh Brown found a unique place in the hearts of so many people.
The memoir is a slightly expanded and lightly edited transcript of a series of taped interviews that University of Utah law professor Edwin Firmage had with his maternal grandfather in 1969-70. Several letters and a selection of family pictures have been added. Noting in the book’s introduction that “Grandfather told the truth—as he remembered and believed it” (xii), Firmage does not correct the occasional small errors of fact or grapple with the evidence that some of the great faith-promoting stories, such as the currant bush, recount historical events that may never have occurred as described. Instead, he lets the autobiographical reminiscence speak for itself, and it tells the story of a unique, engaging, and important man.
The narrative begins in Salt Lake City in 1883, when a second son and fifth child was born to a stern, even harsh, father and an affectionate mother—both Browns. Hence Hugh Brown Brown, who came to be the repository of the high hopes of his mother and several prominent Mormons with whom he had contact as a child and young man. His family moved to Alberta, Canada, in 1899. There he learned ranching and received a basic education before going on a mission to England (1904-6) and marrying Zina Card, of Logan. Their sixty-six year union gave him eight children and a firm testimony of the potential for happiness in a good marriage. While Zina was totally incapacitated by a series of strokes that left her bedridden and speechless for seven years, he dictated these words:
I hope that my wife and I can both live until the last one of us dies, so that when we go, we will go hand in hand. For I am afraid that this is the only way I will be able to get through the pearly gates, to hang on her hand and slip through on her record. Then when our children come up there, their mother will have a big harp and I, with chin whiskers, will have a banjo and we will play and march as they come, “littlest by littlest,” as we used to say on Christmas mornings. (134)
After military service as a training officer in World War I, Hugh qualified to practice law in Canada, then relocated with his family in Salt Lake City in 1927. Already having served as a stake president in Alberta, he soon was called to head the Granite Stake; that calling brought collaboration with Harold B. Lee, Henry D. Moyle, and other pioneers of the Church welfare program. His enduring connection with the Democratic party led to an unsuccessful campaign for a senatorial nomination in 1934 and a brief, unhappy service on the Utah Liquor Control Commission. When he moved to California in 1937, at fifty-three years of age, he felt his fortunes to be at a low ebb.
The remaining forty-two years were devoted almost entirely to Church-oriented work. He served successively, and successfully, as president of the British Mission, LDS servicemen’s coordinator, British Mission president again, and very popular teacher of religion at BYU. An unrewarding quest for wealth in the Canadian oil business, 1950-54, was followed by calls to be an Assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve, then one of the Twelve, then a Counselor to, Second Counselor in, and from 1963 to 1970 First Counselor in the First Presidency. When Joseph Fielding Smith reconstituted the First Presidency on the death of David O. McKay, Hugh B. Brown resumed his calling among the Apostles.
The memoir is salt-and-peppered with the wit and wisdom of its author. Of the former, some was purely for fun’s sake. In a courting letter to Zina, he observed that “it is possible for a Brown to feel blue” (34). As death approached, he more than once used the phrase “Son of Obituary” (146); to his biographers he suggested that it might be an appropriate title for their book. But more often he used the light touch to make a profound point, as when he credited these words to an elderly and forgiving bishop with whom he served as a young and by-the-book counselor: “Brethren, there is one thing for which I am profoundly grateful, and that is that God is an old man. I would hate to be judged by you young fellows” (19).
Few specific details about President Brown’s activities as a General Authority are provided in the memoir. His overall appraisal: “Although I have had some rather difficult experiences . . . by reason of some misunderstandings and disagreements, it has been a truly wonderful experience” (115). In his editorial afterword, Firmage describes the controversies over racial policies during the 1960s and concludes: “I believe without the slightest doubt that his [Brown’s] position on blacks and the priesthood was the matter that led to his removal from the new First Presidency” (142-43).
On the basis of his assignment, while Assistant to the Twelve, to review applications for temple divorces, Elder Brown was moved to write and speak extensively on the problems and possibilities of marriage. He believed that most Mormon families would benefit from “better programs of sexual education” (118). Of prescriptive approaches to marital behavior, he wrote:
It is a dangerous thing to try to regulate the private lives of husbands and wives or for church leaders to go into the bedroom of a couple who are married and try to dictate what they should or should not do. Many of the problems people bring to the authorities of the chuch should be settled by the persons themselves. They know the basic rule of right and wrong. For example, there are cases where abortion is absolutely justified, in fact necessary, such as in the case of forcible rape, the threat of permanent injury to the mother’s health or life, or the possibility of a grossly deformed birth. . . . And while we have not taken the unyielding attitude of some other churches toward artificial birth control, we cannot officially endorse it because too many young people would stop having children. Even so, I think we will one day have to modify our position. (119-20)
The last two chapters, “A General Authority” and “A Final Testimony,” should be read by a wider audience than is likely to see them. They reflect the experiences of a man who was often a minority voice in counsel even when he held great power in administration. Observations on the nature of the General Authority calling (123-26) are important in a time when doctrines of infallibility are attractive to many Saints. Advocacy of a thoughtful approach to testimony was a hallmark of President Brown’s sermons, and quotable aphorisms abound. For example:
The church is not so much concerned with whether the thoughts of its members are orthodox or heterodox as it is that they shall have thoughts. (139)
Revealed insights should leave us stricken with the knowledge of how little we really know. It should never lead to an emotional arrogance based upon a false assumption that we somehow have all the answers—that we in fact have a corner on truth. For we do not. (140)
Both creative science and revealed religion find their fullest and truest expression in the climate of freedom. (137)
All my life I have advocated that people in and out of the church should think through every proposition presented to them. Positions may be modified as time passes by discussing them with others, but there should be no question that both liberals and conservatives in the church are free to express their opinions. (131)
In my own life I have questioned all the things that men and women question and I have had my own struggle with some problems. But I have found it desirable to lay aside some things that I do not fully understand and await the time when I will grow up enough to see them more clearly. There is so much that is good and true that I can and do approve and accept with all my heart that I can afford to wait for further light on some of these disturbing questions. (133)
Hugh B. Brown was an imposing, intelligent, articulate, and—in spite of surgery for tic douloureux that left his face partially paralyzed—handsome man. Among the General Authorities of his day, his charisma was matched only by President David O. McKay. There is some evidence that, like President McKay, he was not impervious to the danger against which he cautioned: “But the man who is to be successful as a church leader must learn . . . that the adulation of people can be detrimental if it gives him a wrong estimate of his own importance” (123). Still, his life and teachings commend themselves to today’s Latter-day Saints, and this memoir offers an economical way to encounter them.
Daily Spectrum (St. George, Utah), Gracia Jones
The grandson of one of the LDS Church’s most loved leaders has produced an account of his grandfather’s life, in An Abundant Life: The Memoirs of Hugh B. Brown.
In a life spanning more than 90 years, the Canadian born apostle in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was not always in harmony with his fellow man, nor with his associates in the quorum, on temporal matters. However, according to his grandson, he was always striving to be in harmony with his God, and in spite of conflicts born of his strong convictions, he firmly believed in keeping a careful balance. He was a loyal Democrat all his life, and strongly supported the two party system.
Hugh B. Brown was first of all a strong advocate of freedom. Yet, he cautioned all to beware of extremism. He was liberal in his views of many social questions, yet refrained from revolutionary impulses. He schooled himself to accept things that could not be changed, but never reconciled to the idea that they might never change.
He was not a stranger to conflict either in the course of his own career as a military officer in the Canadian Army, or in his career as a stake president, church representative and apostle. He served as a counselor in the First Presidency of the church from 1961 to 1970, a service that was not always peaceful.
Respectfully, Firmage explains the inner conflicts surrounding Brown’s efforts to get a proposal, allowing blacks to full priesthood, approved by the Quorum of the Twelve. Brown’s disappointment, his estrangement, and later reconciliation with then President of the Twelve, Harold B. Lee, reveals the integrity of a man who could hold his own views without dominating others.
After the death of David O. McKay, Brown was not continued as a counselor to the new president, Joseph Fielding Smith. Some believed this was because of Brown’s political views, which were more liberal than those of Lee, who became first counselor.
“Although I personally believe we as a church were poorer without Grandfather and his sensitivity on social and moral issues in the First Presidency, Grandfather’s final years of service in the Quorum was a sweet time of service,” Firmage noted.
“At one point after his return to the Twelve, Brown became seriously ill and was not expected to live through the night. A news release, which would announce his death, was prepared. However, President Lee pronounced a blessing upon him and Brown came out of his coma. The next morning he woke up, looked the doctor in the eye, and said, ‘I fooled you, didn’t I!’ He lived several more years.”
One of the most touching aspects of this book is the intimate look it gives into the relationship between the aging apostle and his wife Zina. His care of her for the more than eight years she was bedridden, and his pleasure in serving her are exemplified in the way he would return from his assignments to his wife’s room, “always with a flower. He would tap on her window and say, with an accent learned from over a decade of church service in his beloved England, ‘Toot, Toot, Mama! I’m here! Your sweetheart is home.’ Then he would hobble in with a cane in one hand and the arm of a son or daughter or grandchild in the other and greet his mate of over 60 years.”
Zina’s devotion to her husband is also legendary, according to son, Charles M. Brown, of St. George. His mother was mild mannered by nature, but fierce in her defense of her husband. Charles expressed his appreciation of the book, to which he “made a few contributions, and also did some proof reading of the manuscript.”
President Brown observed the adulation focused upon those who are called to high positions of any capacity, either church or government, and expressed concern: “The man who is to be successful as a church leader must learn that he is fallible, that he is mortal, and that the adulation of people can be detrimental if it gives him a wrong estimate of his own importance.”
“Personally,” Brown asserted, “I have always felt that applause is a dangerous thing to most people, even to those who may be deserving of it.”
“The whole genius of Mormonism is cooperative action,” he said. And he firmly held that “those in high positions should guard against ever being deceived by the thought that because of their position they would be forgiven for doing things that they would not forgive others for doing.”
He further advocated that a church leader “should always be moving toward perfection, curbing his natural desires, his weaknesses, and tendencies toward self aggrandizement and be worthy of the companionship of the Holy Spirit.”
Brown gloried in intellectual and spiritual freedom, which, he said, were consistent with Mormon teaching of agency and the eternal nature of human intelligence: “When I consult my own inner self, I find a deep seated, perhaps instinctive feeling of immeasurable oldness, an echo of time immemorial, as well as a feeling of necessary endlessness. No adverse logic or reason can dispel these feelings. I did not put them there, I found them there. When I grew old enough to introspect my mind, and in spite of recurrent doubts and criticism, this innate knowledge has remained unimpaired.”
In An Abundant Life, Firmage has brought to life the very essence of the man himself. He in fact has provided readers with a selection of his grandfather’s candid personal memoirs balanced with an intimate family editorial comment.
In reading this book, people will gain more than a peek at a great church leader, community servant, and devoted family man. They will glimpse some important insights into an era in which the church passed through tremendous changes, and the world in which we live was radically affected by social and moral revolution. Firmage has shown us that Hugh B. Brown was a viable influence upon the world he lived in and left an imprint that continues to influence the present and the future LDS scene.
John Whitmer Historical Association Journal, James B. Allen
For many Latter-day Saints, especially members of the Mormon academic community and others with broad or liberal-minded interests, Hugh B. Brown has become a kind of folk hero. After a most interesting life (missionary service, Canadian military service, law practice in both Canada and Utah, a term as mission president in Great Britain, teaching political science and religion instructor at Brigham Young University, and then a short business career in Canada), Brown was named an assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1953. Less than five years later he became a member of that quorum, and in 1961 he became a member of the First Presidency. He was released from the First Presidency in 1970, resuming his place in the Quorum of the Twelve until his death in 1975. During his twenty-two years as a General Authority he endeared himself to Latter-day Saints not only for his kindly wisdom and deep gospel insights but also for his well-reasoned and often outspoken attitude toward such things as marriage and family life, freedom of thought within the church, political diversity, and racial issues. He suffered many disappointments and heartaches, but his exemplary goodwill and optimism, together with his deep and contagious faith, helped make him a kind of legend in his own time.
In 1969 and 1970 Edwin B. Firmage, his grandson, conducted a series of tape-recorded interviews with President Brown. These interviews were among the many sources used by Richard D. Poll and Eugene E. Campbell in their 1975 biography, Hugh B. Brown: His Life and Thought. Though many, if not most, of the essential details from the interviews were included in the biography, enough of his personal warmth, philosophy, and insights remained that the tape recordings themselves were well worth publishing. In this book Firmage does so, having edited the tapes only for grammatical niceties and then adding some very important and insightful letters. Among the most poignant is the last letter Brown wrote to his oldest son, Hugh, who was killed in World War II. An Abundant Life, then, becomes important to students of Mormon culture as the authentic memoirs of an insightful and important leader.
The memoirs, however, are not an autobiography. They are short, spotty in coverage, and unfortunately for readers especially interested in the period of President Brown’s church leadership, all too sketchy. The General Authority years, for example, are covered in only about twenty-two pages.
Nevertheless, some of the observations and attitudes revealed there provide valuable insights into how this church leader felt about many issues, including some that are still with us. He spent many years, for example, working with people who had marital problems and formed some strong opinions about marriage, sexual relations, and birth control. “While we have not taken the unyielding attitude of some churches toward artificial birth control,” he said, “we cannot officially endorse it because to many young people would stop having children. Even so, I think we will one day have to modify our position” (119-20). Speaking of the adulation given General Authorities who, he observed, are “almost idolized,” he demonstrated his own humility:
Sometimes men in such positions are inclined to think that they thmselves are the objects of this adulation when, in fact, what people are doing is indicating their respect for the authority of the office and the appointment one has received. If we can keep in mind this fact and never abrogate to ourselves the honor which belongs to the office, we will be safe (123).
He also had much to say about how important it is for church leaders not to consider themselves above the law or inspired in everything they say.
Chapter 8, “A General Authority,” really deals with President Brown’s insights into what it means to be a church leader rather than with the details of what he did. He was an avid Democrat, evidently in a small minority among his colleagues, but he was also a strong advocate of the two-party system and deplored any tendency for the church to take an official political stance. He said,
It is definitely established that this is a two-party church, that membership in either party does not affect one’s standing in the church. For the church to take a position on a political issue is a dangerous thing. . . . I think there has been and is now too much of a tendency to cater to the wishes and decisions of one party as against the other. This must be changed (130).
In addition, while clearly unsympathetic with Communism, he was equally appalled at those who went to extremes in opposing it and tarnishing the reputations of good Americans with whom they differed. Further, he said, clearly anticipating the realities that confront the church today,
Because this is a worldwide church, we must also not be put into a public position of favoring one political philosophy over another. If the majority of citizens in a foreign country vote for a socialist government, we, as a church, should not do anything that would reflect adversely on that country’s political system. The church and its leaders must not be perceived as extremist (130-31).
These are only a few of the very timely and quotable insights one will find in this warm and highly readable volume. It is delightful reading and well worth the price.
Los Angeles Times, John Dart
Hugh B. Brown, a high-ranking member of the Mormon hierarchy for 22 years up to his death in 1975, says in just-published memoirs that many church decisions called “revelations” were actually decisions first “thrashed out” thoroughly by the top authorities.
Those decisions “are no less revelatory, but it is simplistic to think that it comes as a bolt out of the blue,” said the memoirs’ editor, Edwin B. Firmage, a grandson of Brown and a law professor at the University of Utah.
Because the Mormon Church hierarchy presents a unified front after its pronouncements, any prior divisions or debates usually appear only much later in biographies and memoirs.
The Brown memoirs, for example, provide an authoritative glimpse into an aborted attempt to lift the ban on blacks in the priesthood nearly a decade before that change was announced as a revelation in 1978. According to the book, Brown came close in the late 1960s to winning approval for such a change among his colleagues in the church’s First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve.
Brown also had proposed about that time that aging leaders like himself be retired to emeritus status rather than hold lifetime offices. But when that policy was instituted, also in 1978, it was applied only to the church posts below the Council of the Twelve Apostles, a body whose senior members traditionally move up to the post of president and prophet.
Brown, who was 92 when he died, was named to the Council of the Twelve in 1953 by President David O. McKay. He later became a part of the First Presidency—a counselor to McKay—from 1961 to January, 1970, when McKay died at age 96.
The decision-making procedure, Brown explained, generally worked like this:
“[An idea] is submitted to the First Presidency and Twelve, thrashed out, discussed and rediscussed until it seems right. Then, kneeling together in a circle in the temple, they seek divine guidance and the president says, ‘I feel to say this is the will of the Lord.’ That becomes a revelation. It is usually not thought necessary to publish or proclaim it as such, but this is the way it happens.”
Most Mormons are unaware of such a complex procedure, said Mormon historian Michael Quinn in an interview. Or, if they are aware of it, they are uncomfortable with the notion in light of the appearance of unanimity and divine inspiration when decisions are announced.
“There can be intense disagreements,” said Quinn, who formerly taught at Brigham Young University and is currently on a fellowship at the Huntington Library in San Marino.
“For people who study organizational behavior, this is nothing new, but for Mormons the idea of coalitions of power is an uncomfortable one,” Quinn said. Quinn wrote a biography of J. Reuben Clark, who along with Brown was a counselor to McKay.
In an afterword to The Memoirs of Hugh B. Brown, published by Signature Books in Salt Lake City, Firmage detailed Brown’s effort to admit blacks to the priesthood—a level of church service important for dedicated young male Mormons. Brown “never believed this policy had the slightest doctrinal justification,” Firmage said.
As described by Firmage, it was a battle of wills between Brown, a part of the three-man First Presidency, and Harold B. Lee who “was the dominant senior voice” on the Council of the Twelve and who felt the ban was doctrinally based.
Brown was then the senior adviser to the ailing President McKay. Lee was dominant on the council because of the advanced age of Chairman Joseph Fielding Smith, who at age 93 would succeed McKay as head of the church. (Upon Smith’s death in 1972, Lee became church president but he died the next year and was succeeded by Spencer W. Kimball.)
Brown got a proposal to permit full priesthood for blacks approved by the council, but it was during Lee’s absence. When Lee came back, he opposed the proposal and persuaded other council members to back his own statement reaffirming the ban as doctrine.
Brown “managed to add language to Elder Lee’s statement endorsing full civil rights for all citizens, but [Brown] still resisted signing the statement,” Firmage said.
Brown, in his 80s, was suffering from late stages of Parkinson’s disease and was ill at the time with Asian flu. Under “tremendous pressure” from Lee to sign, Brown finally relented. Firmage said his grandfather told him that story just before he signed the document.
Asked for comment on the account, Don LeFevre, press relations manager for church headquarters, said: “I’m sure there was much discussion over the years among the authorities of the church. But the Lord is not concerned with pressures at all.
“When the change in status of blacks eventually did come it was a result of divine revelation to the prophet, Spencer Kimball, who had over an extended time petitioned the Lord in prayer.”
Brown also said in his memoirs that when a new apostle was named to the Council of the Twelve the typical procedure was for the church president to ask members of the council to submit names for his consideration, but that the decision rested with the president.
LeFevre said that presidents of the church “have always been entitled to solicit suggestions from colleagues and generally do. The main point is that the final decision of whose name to provide to the Lord for divine confirmation is the prophet’s and his alone.”
Brown recounted a sharp disagreement over whether a missionary in training, who Brown believed had repented of an unnamed sin, should be allowed to go overseas. The situation was discussed “very forcibly” at one meeting of the First Presidency and the Twelve, at which McKay was absent. The decision was left up to McKay. Brown said the missionary was allowed to go and did well, but “some of the Twelve failed to forgive him.”
Maintaining that the “genius of Mormonism is cooperative action,” Brown endorsed the notion for the highest level. “I believe that the First Presidency should not make major decisions without submitting them to and being approved by the majority of the Twelve. I have seen this tested a number of times and am convinced that it is the best policy.”
In the 1950s and ’60s, Brown was known by Mormons mainly as a lifelong Democrat within a predominantly conservative Republican hierarchy. He had sought to soften the church’s restrictions on birth control and divorce, and—in his 1969-70 dictating sessions with Firmage—complained that the church hierarchy appeared to favor Republican political views.
“I think there has been and is now too much of a tendency to cater to the wishes and decisions of one party as against the other. This must be changed,” Brown said.
“The degree of one’s aversion to communism, for example, may not always be measured by the noise he or she makes in going about and calling everyone a communist who disagrees with his or her personal political bias.”
Brown’s memoirs leave no doubt that he cherished his faith. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a “practical view of religion: that religion should help us here and now.”
As a well-traveled Mormon, he would meet people who would ask chiding questions about how many wives he had (in reference to church-sanctioned polygamy in the 19th Century). But Brown said: “As Mormons, we should do with religion as we do with music, not defend it but simply render it. It needs no defense. The living of religion is, after all, the greatest sermon. . . .”
Salt Lake Tribune, David L. Bigler
In Joseph Smith’s time, believers understood that the founding prophet of the restored gospel, in effect, went before the face of God to receive revelations for the guidance of the faithful. Given in writing, these left little doubt as to their authorship: “Thus saith the Lord . . .”
Less direct is the method now used to obtain the Lord’s will, according to the first counselor of Mormon Church President David O. McKay. His description of revelation in modern times comes in a revealing autobiography, An Abundant Life: The Memoirs of Hugh B. Brown, dictated in 1969-70 to his grandson, Edwin B. Firmage, University of Utah law professor.
When a question arises, Brown said, “We work out the details and come up with an idea” which is submitted to the First Presidency and Twelve who discuss it at length and pray together until “the president says, ‘I feel to say this is the word of the Lord.'” The procedure he detailed seems pretty much standard for Christians of all denominations.
But thus saith the Lord, or not, Mormon prophets have never allowed any room to doubt the authenticity of the direction that God gives them by whatever method. Brigham Young said he never preached a sermon “they may not call scripture.” And the present Church President Ezra T. Benson has said the Mormon prophet is the only man on earth “who speaks for the Lord on everything.”
That Apostle Brown was among the leaders who have questioned such claims of divinely bestowed infallibility, even in Joseph Smith’s day, is apparent throughout his reminiscences. Especially troubling to him was the profession that any one man possessed the ability or right to dictate in all spheres of human endeavor, including politics.
“The man who is to be successful as a church leader must learn that he is fallible, that he is mortal,” he said, making no exceptions, “and that the adulation of people can be detrimental if it gives him a wrong estimate of his own importance.” Further, the very idea that “whatever the brethren say is gospel,” he believed, tended to “undermine the proposition of freedom of speech and thought.”
Such views take weight from the deep spirituality shown in the remembrances of one of Mormonism’s most beloved general authorities. These cover an eventful life of service to country, church and community from boyhood in Canada until a few years before his death in 1975 at the age of 91.
Brown’s liberal opinions on such issues as the role of blacks in the church, birth control, divorce and freedom of academic inquiry put him at times outside the circle of his brethren in the Mormon hierarchy. A lifelong Democrat, he also thought there was “too much of a tendency” in the church “to cater to the wishes and decisions of one party as against the other.”
At the samt time, he harbored such conservative beliefs as: “We are too ready to conclude that everything from past generations is now folly and that our main duty today, as far as the past is concerned, is to get away from it.” His life also reveals a man who possessed physical and moral courage as well as intellctual integrity.
Happily included are letters to his oldest son, Hugh, which could serve as models for any father in offering wise counsel, expressing parental love and reflecting, at the same time, respect for a young man’s growing maturity and independence. It was a crushing blow when young Brown, a pilot in the Royal Air Force’s Eagle Squadron, was “lost over the North Sea” during the early days of World War II.
And one can only be touched at the tenderness of his feelings toward his wife, Zina, a granddaughter of Brigham Young, who shared his life here for some 66 years. Thanks to her, he said, “I have learned to hold my temper and curb my tongue and have come away a better man.”
A better man, indeed, than most was the one whose memoirs also reflect credit on Firmage for his skill in interviewing his suject and perception in editing this highly readable volume.
Some may take this work as a vindication of their own desire that the church should make itself over into something it never was, while a few might think it outlines a high road to apostacy. But all so read with an open mind will be the wiser for it.
Standard Examiner, John DeVilbiss
The “upper-room” of the Mormon Salt Lake Temple where the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles meets each week holds a great deal of intrigue.
Not much of what takes place there is ever made public. On the occasions when it is, careful notice is paid.
It is this rare glimpse into the church’s inner workings that stands out when reading the recently published book, “The Memoirs of Hugh B. Brown” edited by his grandson, Edwin B. Firmage, and published by Signature Books.
Not only do readers gain insight into the way the church’s top governing board operates, but they are also permitted a candid look into the life and thoughts of a man who served as first counselor to former church President David O. McKay.
Brown, who was a General Authority for the church from 1953 until his death in 1975, enjoyed a close association with church leaders. His high ecclesiastical position permitted him a first-hand look into the decision-making process and the way revelations are received by church leaders.
He said there was a time when church founder Joseph Smith would ask God a question and receive an answer, but those times have changed. There are no burning bushes today.
“When a question arises today, we work over the details and come up with an idea,” he said in his memoirs. “It is submitted to the First Presidency and Twelve, thrashed out, discussed and rediscussed until it seems right. Then, kneeling together in a circle in the temple, they seek divine guidance and the president says, “I feel to say this is the will of the Lord.” That becomes a revelation. It is usually not thought necessary to publish or proclaim it as such, but this is the way it happens.”
In a Religious New Service story, L. Don LaFevre, church spokesman, said presidents of the church “have always been entitled to solicit suggestions from colleagues, and generally do. The main point is that the final decision of whose name to provide to the Lord for divine confirmation is the prophet’s and his alone.”
Brown agreed with the consultative process, saying in his memoirs that the “genius of Mormonism is cooperative action. I believe that the First Presidency should not make major decisions without submitting them to and being approved by the majority of the Twelve. I have seen this tested a number of times and am convinced that it is the best policy.”
Some of the most compelling reading comes at the end of the book in the “Afterword.” Here, Firmage, who is a professor of law at the University of Utah College of Law, writes that Brown experienced a genuine conflict in his quest to convince members of the Quorum of the Twelve that the church’s priesthood policy toward blacks had no doctrinal foundation and should be lifted.
In a meeting with the Twelve during the late 1960s, Brown went so far as to get the Quorum to approve a proposal allowing full priesthood for blacks. However, the proposal, which would have then been presented to the First Presidency for approval, lacked the signature of President Harold B. Lee, who was acting senior member of the Quorum at the time. He was away on a church assignment when Brown presented the proposal.
When Lee returned, he flatly refused to sign the proposal. He was convinced that the priesthood policy was based on doctrine and went on to draft his own statement saying so. It was this second proposal that made it to the First Presidency, Firmage said.
Under “tremendous pressure” from Lee, Brown told Firmage that he felt obligated to join the consensus within the Quorum of the Twelve.
“Grandfather, deeply ill, wept as he related this story to me just before he signed the statement that bore his and President Tanner’s (second counselor) name,” he wrote.
Commenting on Firmage’s account, LeFevre, again quoted by Religious News Service, said that there “was much discussion over the years among the authorities of the church. But the Lord is not concerned with pressures at all.”
LeFevre said that “when the change in status of blacks eventually did come, it was a result of divine revelation to the prophet, Spencer Kimball, who had over an extended time petitioned the Lord in prayer.”
Firmage said Brown was also concerned about infirmity in the church leadership ranks. When he returned to the Twelve, he proposed that an emeritus status be created for all General Authorities, including members of the Twelve and the First Presidency—in effect, a mandatory retirement age. This proposal was rejected, but an abbreviated version was later adopted under President Spencer W. Kimball’s administration allowing for members of the Quorum of Seventy to be given an emeritus status.
Firmage, who sat tape recording sessions with his grandfather over a space of nearly two years, said he made no attempts to censor any of “Grandfather’s candid, refreshing observations.”
Although the transcription of the tape recordings and other materials he had gathered were used in the biography “Hugh B. Brown: His Life and Thought” published in 1975, Firmage said “some of Grandfather’s vitality” comes out in his own first- person reminiscences that make the second book equally valuable.
Brown, an ardent Democrat, was considered “liberal” by some. But Firmage said he was only liberal in the sense of “a liberality of spirit.” A man who displayed “an expansive and open and accepting spirit.”
He said it was this universal, Pauline progressiveness that helped him to be sensitive to the poor. He had a “deep respect” of civil liberties that involved a “profound belief in the sanctity of the individual soul,” he said.
Firmage said his grandfather’s “liberality of soul” allowed him the capacity to “see the big picture.” It was this capacity that led him early in his life to question the church’s strict policy that banned blacks from the priesthood.
He credits his grandfather’s efforts to reserve this policy, about two or three decades before it actually occurred, as being a “vital prologue” in a revelatory process that came to fruition in 1978.
Although loyal to the church to the end, Brown possessed a questioning spirit, saying that doubt has a place “if it can stir in one an interest to go out and find the truth for one’s self,” he said in his memoirs.
Firmage said his grandfather seemed especially leery of authoritarians—perhaps, somewhat in reaction to a strict father, who used “corporal punishment in a very harsh nature.”
He said his grandfather never believed that authority alone makes something right or true.
He held equal suspicion for creeds and dogma and showed “humorous tolerance” for theology, Firmage said.
“Religion is my preference,” Brown said in his memoirs. “Someone has said, ‘I hate botany, but I love flowers.’ I would say that I do not care for theology, but I love religion.”