Reviews – Elder Statesman: A Biography of J. Reuben Clark

Elder StatesmanLibrary Bookwatch
Elder Statesman: A Biography of J. Reuben Clark by D. Michael Quinn is a thorough, solid, detailed, and exhaustively comprehensive portrayal of Mormon church leader J. Reuben Clark. Amazingly informative and candid, Elder Statesman is an outstanding biography that ranges from Clark’s brush with atheism (one which he resolved by deciding that belief may be irrational yet is essential) to his view of African-Americans (he was once responsible for segregating blood donations by color), yet he was also one of the first of the Mormon hierarchy to advocate priesthood for African-Americans among the Latter-day Saints. Elder Statesman is a most revealing and fascinating biographical study and highly recommended reading for those with an interest in Mormon studies.

Association for Mormon Letters, Jeff Needle
Okay, true confession time. I have a love/love relationship with [D. Michael] Quinn’s books. As much as I love getting a new volume, and as much as I love getting into it, I am equally glad to finally be done with it. Which is to say that anyone familiar with Quinn and his writing will know that casual reading will not suffice. Focus, focus, focus. Happily, one can segregate the actual text from his legendary footnotes–the present volume contains 428 pages of text. The balance is composed of notes, notes, more notes, and an index.

Of course, this reflects Quinn’s exhaustive research methods and the importance he sees in sourcing and attributing nearly every thought in his narrative. Some have questioned his use of sources; others are uncomfortable with what they perceive as agenda-driven history. I’m comfortable that his use of sources in this work is substantially accurate. Elder Statesman is the fascinating story of the enigmatic J. Reuben Clark. As one who served in both secular and sacred administrations, he had a unique opportunity to observe the workings of the U. S. government, where he clearly formed his own kind of legalism, carrying it into his calling as counselor to the president of the church.

The origin of this volume is a story in itself. In July 1993 Brigham Young University Press legally assigned to me “the copyright and publication rights” of “the complete book” titled J. Reuben Clark: The Church Years. It emphasized the activities that followed Reuben’s years of service as U. S. Undersecretary of State and U. S. ambassador to Mexico. This was my first book, which BYU published ten years earlier. It has long been out of print. Before the book went to press and after Reuben’s children approved a preliminary manuscript, the LDS First Presidency appointed two apostles to give final approval to a revised version before its 1983 publication. BYU administrator Robert K. Thomas relayed “suggested changes” to me in 1982 following his consultation with Elders Howard W. Hunter and Thomas S. Monson. So that it could be an officially approved biography, I made numerous deletions and revisions in my first draft” (vii).

You get the idea. And Quinn’s readers will understand what happened here. Having done a thorough job of investigating the life of J. Reuben Clark, he discovered some aspects of Clark’s life which Elders Hunter and Monson thought were better not explored in this venue. “As a biographer, I admired much of J. Reuben Clark’s views as I became acquainted with them while researching his papers. I was unable to say in the draft written for official approval that I was also appalled by other ideas which he expressed frequently and emphatically. I state my dissenting biases now. As a lifelong Democrat and left-wing liberal, I disagreed with Clark’s republicanism and conservative political philosophy. As an advocate for an open marketplace of diverse and conflicting ideas (even at BYU), I disagreed with his decades of anti-intellectual emphasis. Although he and fellow travelers regarded liberal and intellectual as labels of dishonor or disrespect, I have always regarded them as worthy qualities in religious people. I was also extremely offended by his racial attitudes and anti-Semitism” (xi).

And so the scene is set–after so many years, Quinn now has the opportunity to produce the volume he wanted to bring forth at first. And what a volume it is.

Let’s consider the contents. In chapter one, “The Waste Places of Zion … The Rivers of Babylon,” Quinn hurries us through a brief survey of Clark’s childhood, early education, and subsequent service to the federal government. This period, after all, is not the focus of this book. An entire volume could be written on Clark as a national figure. And, in fact, his life training while serving his country became an important formative period for his service to the church. Much of the bureaucratic pedantry of government life found its way into his service in the Kingdom of God. This would bring him into conflict with some of his fellow servants.

Chapter two, “Differences of Administration,” surveys some of these conflicts, or better, differences in how one leads a people. It is here, as in so many places in this book, that Quinn betrays a fondness and admiration for Clark. Despite Clark’s many failings–and they are documented thoroughly in later chapters–Quinn still writes:

He lacked previous church administrative experience but often awed his associates in the presiding councils at LDS headquarters. Every church leader has his own strengths, but he brought to the First Presidency an administrative style that was the distillation of twenty-five years of association, service, and negotiation with the highest leaders of business, national government, and international diplomacy. As a shrewd judge of men, President [Heber J.] Grant was confident in April 1933 that he “will be a very great help in directing the affairs of the Church.” The new counselor did not disappoint him. J. Reuben Clark had distinguished himself as a notable civil servant and he would become an extraordinary LDS leader (p. 55).

Chapters three, four, and five document Clark’s service to three presidents–Heber J. Grant, George Albert Smith, and David O. McKay, respectively. These chapters document a fascinating and complex relationship between a man of strong personality and unshakeable beliefs, and the men under whom and with he served. Clark would often see trends in the church which he thought were damaging. But in the end, he was always loyal to his president. He understood this loyalty to be a pre-eminent quality of any person in a leadership position. The transition from the Smith presidency to that of McKay is particularly poignant. Under Smith, Clark served as first counselor, McKay as second counselor. While close friends, Clark and McKay frequently had differing views on matters concerning church administration. These differences created a situation where many in leadership found themselves being described as either Clark men or McKay men. President Smith seemed to favor Clark’s views, producing some resentment in President McKay.

The issue [hard feelings between McKay and Clark] might have seemed resolved when President Smith died in 1951, leaving Elder McKay as senior apostle and automatic president of the church. But President McKay brooded about the upcoming reorganization of the First Presidency and his choice of counselors. It was generally expected that he would advance his closest friend among the authorities, Stephen L Richards, but everyone expected him to be second counselor.

McKay knew that was the expectation of others, but he could not endure the thought of putting his closest friend in the same situation he himself had endured for sixteen and a half years. Richards had more than seventeen years of seniority over Clark as an apostle. Moreover, Richards shared President McKay’s administrative expansiveness, optimism, and other views which were foreign to Reuben (p. 144).

In this way, Clark became second counselor to President McKay. This was seen by many as a demotion, and created some ill-will toward McKay. Later, as Clark himself was called upon to announce the reorganization of the First Presidency with his own demotion, he was able to do so in a controlled and dignified manner. Later he would confide to his family how difficult it was to do this without his voice breaking. (As a side note, Quinn’s observations of McKay’s often erratic and inconsistent administrative style add a dimension to our knowledge of this president. It’s really quite remarkable.) But Clark, true to his commitment to loyalty, accepted the “demotion” with a sense of resignation and even gratitude for the opportunity to continue to serve the church in this manner. He well knew that Richards was a McKay man, and so the appointment could not have been such a surprise. The chapter on the McKay years ends with Clark’s death.

Beginning with chapter six, “Ministering to the Saints,” Quinn retraces Clark’s life as a church leader thematically, covering such issues as his commitment to the church welfare program, his generally open-handed approach to those in need, and his appreciation, although narrow in scope, for the arts, including poetry and classical music.

Chapter seven, “By Study and Also by Faith,” reveals one of the many enigmatic sides to J. Reuben Clark. While appreciating learning and the pursuit of knowledge, he saw no role for education at BYU that did not advance the cause of the gospel.

Throughout his life, J. Reuben Clark had ambivalent attitudes about the interplay between the life of the mind and the life of faith. He treasured the world of “facts” but recognized their insufficiency as a way of life. He was an avid reader and researcher but was convinced that a total commitment to intellectual inquiry led inevitably to atheism. He urged the primacy of faith but was uncomfortable with overly spiritual people. He expected others to consider his pleas to abandon their inadequate secular and religious positions, but he declined to read anything that was contrary to his own views. He was appalled by the confidence of the ignorant and suspicious of the smugness of the intellectual. He was a living example of higher education but preferred limited education in LDS colleges and at Brigham Young University. He defended total freedom of thought but frequently decided that censorship was necessary. He relied on the scriptures for doctrine but resisted doctrinal dogmatism. Prior to becoming a general authority, he had rejected unquestioning obedience to decisions of the LDS president. As a First Presidency counselor, he urged unquestioning obedience to the prophet, while reminding everyone that the church president could also be mistaken. As a private person and as a member of the First Presidency, he sought a conservative balance between the imperatives of reason and revelation (p. 202).

Clark understood the idea of “necessary censorship,” and he assigned this role to the presidency of the church. Thus, when several influential volumes were published (Joseph Fielding Smith’s Man, His Origin and Destiny and Bruce R. McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine) without ecclesiastical approval, Clark expressed his opposition. Quite apart from the questionable content of these volumes, they were published without the imprimatur of the presidency (and even against their direct wishes), and this was sufficient to qualify them for censure. Clark’s complex relationship with the intellectual community is exemplified in the following excerpt:

… there were limits to the pressures he [Clark] was willing to exert against Mormon intellectuals. When Apostle [Mark E.] Petersen asked for permission to excommunicate those he suspected of having disloyal and apostate attitudes, “Pres. Clark cautioned that they ought to be careful about the insubordination or disloyalty question, because they ought to be permitted to think, you can’t throw a man off for thinking” (p. 210).

It was, after all, the acting that put a man in danger, not the thinking. And this acting, in Clark’s view, related mainly to one’s willingness to place one’s self under the stewardship of the leaders of the church.

Chapter eight is titled “Mark Them Which Cause Divisions and Offenses.”

President Clark expressed a certain amount of toleration for LDS members who had “disloyal thoughts” and probed doctrinal mysteries he thought should be left alone. However, he was an unrelenting critic and administrative opponent of those who violated the priesthood “rule and order of the Church” or who taught things that undermined what he perceived as the simple, orthodox gospel of Christ. He did not see himself as a witch-hunter or Grand Inquisitor and publicly condemned the historical policy of Roman Catholicism to “attack and follow up all heretics” (p. 228).

Clark perceived the introduction of such new disciplines as Higher Criticism of the Bible as a destabilizing influence on the church, and thus expressed deep opposition. His own attempts at scholarly writing in this area, most notably his “Why the King James Version?,” reveal his own myopic view of scholarship. This book needs no attack from me–others have treated this at length. And there was no shortage of those who “cause divisions.” Quinn mentions just a few, including Mormon fundamentalism and its emphasis on plural marriage, creeping socialism in both governmental and church programs [Clark was deeply opposed to Roosevelt’s New Deal], and the Communist threat that swept America. But Quinn ends this chapter thusly:

To that list, one must appropriately and necessarily add that J. Reuben Clark was a watchman on the tower of Zion. He raised a warning voice to the Latter-day Saints about dangers he perceived to religious and secular spheres. In that capacity, he often found it necessary to “mark them which cause divisions and offenses” (p. 276).

Once again, while clearly disapproving of Clark’s agenda, Quinn admires the man’s sense of duty. This trait pervades Quinn’s book.

Chapter nine, “They that Take Up the Sword,” discusses Clark’s attitude toward war and pacifism. This is a complex part of the story, as Clark wavers between complete pacifism and moderate support of America’s defensive actions. What complicates his situation is his seeming admiration and support of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi program in Germany. As Hitler’s armies swept Europe and headed toward Russia, Clark raised nary an objection. Much of this can be attributed to his anti-semitism which will be documented later. His stand on war and peace often brought him into conflict with his fellow churchmen. But Clark remained steadfast in his insistence that America stay out of the European conflict. And once America was involved, he extended this to a conviction that the church should not be perceived as being supportive of the war. He declined requests to use the Tabernacle and the choir as backdrops for patriotic enterprises, suggesting they use the Capitol building instead. He likewise opposed American involvement in the United Nations, seeing this institution as threatening the sovereignty of the United States.

Chapter ten, “All Nations, and Kindreds, and People, and Tongues,” was perhaps the most difficult for me to read. Here we find what might be called the seamier side of J. Reuben Clark. I shall focus on just two groups, the Jews and the blacks. Here his views are most pointed. As a Jew, I found his views utterly contemptible: “There was one group … for whom Reuben expressed lifelong dislike and distrust–the Jewish people. In a 1942 letter to Herbert Hoover, he said the Jews ‘are brilliant, they are able, they are unscrupulous, and they are cruel.’ Part of this explanation for his anti-Semitism was personal and part political. He expressed contempt for ‘the foul sewage of Europe’ in his 1898 valedictory, yet Mormons had traditionally gotten along very well with the small population of Jews in Utah” (p. 325). He never passed up an opportunity to express his contempt for Jews. After serving more than ten years in the First Presidency, he wrote, “I long ago ceased reading his [Walter Lippmann’s] stuff, because he veers like a weather-vane, but I am sure always true when the wind blows from Jew-ward” (p. 328).

In February 1941, the New York Times reported that Berlin’s Nazi Party newspaper referred to the necessity of “eliminating all Jews.” This was an echo of the LDS newspaper’s headline in 1938, “Death for 700,000 Jews Threatened: Semites Must Get Out or Die, Nazis Declare.” Even this stark Utah report gave less than one-tenth of Adolf Hitler’s goal of killing every Jew in Europe. During the balance of 1941 and increasingly thereafter, newspapers in every major American city reported specific examples of the mass execution of Jews throughout Nazi-controlled Europe. In apparent response to such reports, LDS author N. L. Nelson wrote a book against Hitler in the early months of 1941 and referred to the Nazi “butchery” of the Jews.

In his June reply to Nelson’s manuscript, Reuben defended Hitler and added, “There is nothing in their history which indicates that the Jewish race have [sic] either free-agency or liberty. ‘Law and order’ are not facts for the Jews” (p. 335).

Clark’s attitudes toward blacks was equally reprehensible. Along with others of his time, he opposed intermarriage and supported the common practice of segregating blood supplies in hospitals to ensure that no white person would be infused with blood from a black person, and thus either invalidate his priesthood or disqualify him from future priesthood. But as time progressed, so did his attitude toward blacks. As the church extended its missionary efforts into South America and determining blood lines became more difficult, he came to something of an accommodation in the case of some Brazilians, even “wondering whether we could not work out a plan, while not conferring the priesthood as such upon them, we could give them opportunity to participate in the work certainly of the Aaronic Priesthood grades (p. 354).”

His vision of an enlarged priesthood exceeded that of Brigham Young’s. He saw a time when blacks would hold full priesthood privileges (and not necessarily subject to Young’s prediction that this would not happen until every worthy white male received the priesthood). No such growth is seen in his attitude toward Jews. He remained a steadfast anti-semite until his death. And in the case of blacks and other racial minorities, Clark argued for the civil rights of such folk, without also arguing their spiritual equality. Quinn ends this chapter in much the same way he ends other chapters. But in this case, I was disturbed: “J. Reuben Clark was clearly a product of the nineteenth century. He alternately accepted and resisted the twentieth century’s changing views of race and ethnicity. But supreme to him were the majesty of the law, the principle of justice for all humanity, and the expansiveness of the latter-day gospel” (p. 360). Given Clark’s refusal to condemn the attempted extermination of the Jews by Nazi Germany, it seems that his view of “justice for all humanity” was somewhat constricted. I would have appreciated this exception being noted in Quinn’s too-broad, in my view, statement.

Chapter eleven, “Precious Things of Every Kind and Art,” discusses Clark’s restrictive view and love of the arts. Quinn describes his views as “common.” I thought this chapter interesting but ultimately unimportant.

Chapter twelve, “The Welfare of This People,” discusses Clark’s passion for the church welfare system. J. Reuben Clark entered the First Presidency during the worst economic crisis in American history. He devoted a major part of his attention to the financial stability of the LDS church. These efforts are often identified with the Welfare Plan, as indicated by Harold B. Lee’s eulogy, “Perhaps there was nothing closer to his heart during 28 years of his Presidency than the Welfare Program” (p. 377).

Quinn offers an informative survey of the various economic programs of the church, including the United Order and the Law of Consecration. Their failures pointed to the need for a wider understanding of finances and cooperation in the church. But in a time of deep depression, these issues came into sharp focus. In this area he was in constant conflict with the church itself. The 1928 “Handbook of Instructions” specified that the responsibility for aiding needy members fell first on their families, second on county relief agencies, and third, as a last resort, on the church (p. 382). Clark’s deep distrust of governmental welfare programs flew in the face of this order. He urged the church to take responsibility for the welfare of the Saints ahead of any government program, local or national. But the church did not possess sufficient resources to meet this need. His opposition to state-sponsored welfare was matched by his passion for developing church programs that would ultimately enable the church to meet these needs. Much opposition arose. Some thought Clark’s programs were the first step toward a return to the United Order, although Clark did not see his programs in this light. Quinn ends the narrative portion of the book with some appreciative words about Clark’s life and legacy.

Now, I will answer a key question: Did I research every note to make sure Quinn used his citations in their proper context? No. Did I even read the notes section? No. I consulted a few, but did not read every one. As with all Quinn books, I keep two bookmarks–one marking the place where I’m currently reading, the other marking the beginning of the notes section. As I have to budget my reading time, I can only gauge my true progress in this manner.

Elder Statesman is a massive and impressive work. Quinn spares no effort in researching and developing his themes. Happily, he was given access to boxes of personal correspondence and unpublished writings, giving him a private insight into Clark that would not be possible through his public persona. And, as mentioned several times, there is an unmistakable admiration for the man that marks the book as a whole. I struggled with this. How can Quinn, whose world-view is nearly diametrically opposed to Clark’s, stand back and appreciate the man himself? I decided that Quinn’s view was not so much pure admiration, but rather celebration–a celebration of the life of a deeply conflicted, seriously flawed man who sidestepped his shortcomings and accomplished great things. Clark somehow found a way to accommodate his provincial, often racist, views with his wider desire for the welfare and happiness of society. Such contentious views are difficult to hold in tandem. Clark somehow found a way.

I highly recommend this book to every serious scholar of Mormon history. Clark’s life covers a pivotal period in the development of the church, and Quinn’s book offers a panoramic view of the world as it encircled the life of J. Reuben Clark.

Utah Historical Quarterly, Brian Q. Cannon
In 1983 D. Michael Quinn’s J. Reuben Clark: The Church Years was published by Brigham Young University Press. Now Signature Books has published a more detailed account of Clark’s life, nearly twice as long, by the same author. Like its predecessor, this book emphasizes the final twenty-nine years of Clark’s life when he served as counselor in the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of latter-day Saints. The new book maintains the same chapter sequence as the earlier volume. The text and notes have been updated, however, to reflect additional research by Quinn and more recent work by other scholars. Moreover, portions of Quinn’s original manuscript that were altered or deleted prior to publication in 1983 have been restored. As Quinn notes in the preface, the recent volume “fully examines” controversial facets of Clark’s experience that the previous volume merely “introduced” (ix).

The biography emphasizes the secular dimensions of Clark’s church service including his administrative style, interaction with other members of the church hierarchy, and role in shaping church policies ranging from the Welfare Plan to finances. His political views and public stances on issues including Communism, the New Deal, and pacifism are treated thoroughly as are his racial attitudes and artistic tastes. In the process Quinn enables the reader to sense Clark’s moral complexity and internal contradictions. For instance, Clark fervently denounced Communism but rejected Cold War anti-Communist defensive strategies including formation of NATO, development of the hydrogen bomb, and proposals to establish a peacetime draft.

Despite Clark’s stature as a religious leader, the book focuses relatively little upon his spirituality. Quinn shows that Clark routinely worked on Sundays, held few church callings, and led what Clark once called “more or less my own spiritual life” prior to a spiritual rebirth that apparently occurred in 1923, but the author does little to illuminate the wellsprings of that awakening (17). Quinn notes Clark’s emphasis upon Christology in his sermons but does not evaluate his major work on the topic, Our Lord of the Gospels. As an indicator of the book’s emphasis, the index identifies over three dozen of the book’s references to Clark’s spirituality, but it lists far more references to Clark’s comments on matters such as Communism, war, and racism.

Quinn’s account sparkles with fascinating anecdotes and quotations culled from sources in the LDS church archives which are regrettably no longer generally available to researchers. These sources include the journals and/or correspondence of church leaders such as Heber J. Grant, George Albert Smith, David O. McKay, Joseph Fielding Smith, Harold B. Lee, Spencer W. Kimball, Marion G. Romney, and Stephen L. Richards.

Quinn’s creativity, sense of irony, and vivid prose make this book fascinating to read. The book’s copious endnotes invite readers to scrutinize the underpinnings of Quinn’s conclusions. Readers will find instances where evidence from one year is introduced to illuminate events in a different year; for example, in a discussion of Heber J. Grant’s attitudes toward the New Deal in 1934 at the time of his counselor Anthony W. Ivins’s death, Quinn quotes an entry from Grant’s 1940 diary.

In other places quoted words or phrases appear in misleading contexts. For instance, Francis Gibbons’s faith-promoting biography of David O. McKay is cited to show that McKay wanted “to be recognized, lauded, and lionized”—a distortion of Gibbons’s argument (263).

Hints of innuendo—some of them more subtle than others—keep the reading lively. For instance, immediately after discussing a sixty-two-page critique of the United Nations penned by Clark in 1945, Quinn indicates that “BYU eventually printed the full text” without any discussion of the nature of the publication or the circumstances surrounding it (312). After quoting a letter from Clark to a non-Mormon to the effect that some Americans had been “blinded” by pro-United Nations rhetoric, Quinn quips, “By extension, he regarded LDS presidents Smith and McKay as ‘blinded'” (313).

Unlike official histories, this work reveals and emphasizes considerable conflict within the church’s presiding bodies, most notably Clark’s relationship with David O. McKay. Indeed, its illumination of such conflicts is one of the book’s key historical contributions. Yet Quinn also gives credence to consensus-based accounts, noting the “deep respect and affection which they [Clark and McKay] expressed publicly and privately” (162).