Reviews – Mormon Democrat: The Religious and Political Memoirs of James Henry Moyle

The Religious and Political Memoirs of James Henry MoyleUtah Historical Quarterly, F. Alan Coombs
Throughout a long and distinguished career, James Henry Moyle harbored “two religions by his own count, Mormonism and the Democratic party” (xiv). For several years before his death in 1946 he produced voluminous materials to tell his story. An early biographical effort was never completed, however, and Gordon B. Hinckley’s James Henry Moyle: The Story of a Distinguished American and an Honored Churchman (1951) received only limited circulation before going out of print. Then the late Leonard Arrington, while serving as LDS Church Historian, encouraged Professor Gene Sessions to take on the project, an effort that resulted in the original version of Mormon Democrat, published in limited edition by the Historical Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1975. The present volume is a skillfully edited and updated second edition of that work, published by Signature Books as part of its Significant Mormon Diaries series. Moyle was, after all, a force to be reckoned with as the Democratic party’s unsuccessful candidate for governor of Utah and for United States Senator, as longtime Democratic national committeeman, and as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Wilson administration. He was called back into service as Commissioner of Customs during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, a position that he held well past his eightieth birthday.

Moyle’s own words are on these pages. The most persistent theme in his reminiscences is his exasperation with the decision of some of the highest leaders in the LDS church in the mid-1890s to embrace the Republican party and encourage the faithful to do the same. He regarded this action as absolutely incompatible with the constitutional principle of separation of church and state and as particularly odious because it represented ingratitude toward the Democratic party that he loved and which, in his view, had been historically much friendlier to Mormons than the Republicans had been. His anger was directed in the early period toward Apostle-Senator Reed Smoot and even President Joseph F. Smith and in the 1930s and early ’40s at J. Reuben Clark—and his style was often brusque. Yet time and again Moyle voices his abiding faith in the trueness of the church itself and its divine inspiration.

Fascinating sub-themes emerge: class conflict and family preference within Mormondom, a perilous mission field in the southern U. S. in the late nineteenth century, and the tendency in the same time period to tolerate less-than-rigorous adherence to the Word of Wisdom. Readers will also find countless summary judgments of political and ecclesiastical leaders, their abilities, and their character.

The way a book is regarded inevitably depends on who is doing the regarding. Some pious Mormons (particularly if they are also Republicans) may regard Moyle’s pointed criticism of the church’s leadership and his repeated assertion that even church presidents have been fallible human beings as tantamount to heresy. Non-Mormons may think Moyle was dreadfully naïve ever to imagine that the conservative leadership of a conservative church would observe a strict separation of church and state when it had within its power the ability to influence (some would say “dictate”) public policy. Those in between may marvel at Moyle’s ability to embrace with such fervor, over a long period of time, two often adversarial allegiances. (His sincere friendship with Heber J. Grant provides a touching example.)

Whatever their perspective, serious students of Mormon history or Utah politics will find much of interest in this occasioally repetitive memoir, and the fifty-three-page “Biographical Appendix,” which provides valuable material on virtually every figure prominently mentioned in the text, is a bonus prize. It is good to have Sessions’s book and Moyle’s life more easily available.

Journal of Mormon History, Richard D. Ouellette
Since the Mormon succession crisis following the murder of Joseph Smith, the most tumultuous period for Latter-day Saint leaders probably occurred at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. During that time, Mormonism transformed itself from a heretical movement isolated in the Great Basin into an outward-looking, somewhat mainstream, and increasingly respectable Church. Among Church leaders, that shift was painful, uncertain, and uneven. Mormon leaders often found themselves clashing bitterly over clandestine plural marriages and the Church’s political role. When the discrepancies between their public statements and some of their private actions came to light, public humiliation and further internal discord often resulted. The expulsion of Apostle Moses Thatcher, the reprimand of Seventy B. H. Roberts, the Reed Smoot Senate hearings, the excommunication of Apostle John W. Taylor, and the disfellowshipment of Apostle Matthias Cowley—these were traumatic years indeed.

James Henry Moyle is not one of the first names that comes to mind when thinking about this period of Mormon history. He was not a General Authority. He never won a major political campaign in Utah. He was never at the center of the various controversies that flared up from time to time. And yet he shaped and witnessed this turbulent period from a relatively unusual, and instructive, vantage point—as both an ardent, nationally known Democrat and as a faithful Latter-day Saint intimate with, but never a part of, the Church hierarchy.

Moyle wrote his memoirs in the 1940s while in his eighties. The Moyle family later donated his personal papers to the LDS Church Archives. With the permission of the family, historian Gene A. Sessions edited these memoirs into a coherent narrative in the early 1970s, supplementing them with other Moyle sources when necessary. In 1975 he published the memoirs in a limited edition for the family titled Mormon Democrat. Over the past twenty-five years, however, many a scholar has felt that these memoirs were too important to be so hard to find. Thankfully, Signature Books and Smith Research Associates have now decided to republish them in a limited edition of 350 copies for their Significant Mormon Diaries Series.

The new edition is virtually unchanged from the older one. Aside from a short preface and updated footnotes, the narrative is unrevised. The bibliographical appendix is superb and quite a helpful resource. I do wish that Sessions had updated and included more explanatory information in the footnotes, but this is a minor quibble: The text reads quite well as it is. Gene Sessions, the Moyle family, and Signature Books all deserve credit for making Moyle’s passionate, insightful voice more accessible.1

The memoirs cover virtually all but the final two years of Moyle’s long, vigorous life. The attention given to each period of his life is impressively balanced, a quality that is not always found in the memoirs of public figures. We thus learn as much about Moyle’s mission, for instance, as we do about his federal service, a credit either to Moyle, Sessions, or both. Moyle’s writing is like the man—honest both about himself and others, at times biting, and yet usually always charitable. Speaking of political rival Reed Smoot, for instance, Moyle fumes: “Again, here was an Apostle who never demonstrated the first sign of love or even cordiality for me, a brother in the Gospel. I regret to say that I was not much better” (212).

As Moyle recounts, he was born in 1858 in Brigham Young’s fledgling theocracy of Salt Lake City. As a boy, he witnessed his father take a second wife, and as a teenager he cut stone on the Temple Block. He then served a mission to post-Reconstruction North Carolina when it was quite dangerous to do so: Joseph Standing, a contemporary of Moyle’s, was killed on a mission in Georgia in 1879. But even as Mormonism indelibly shaped Moyle’s relatively happy world, he felt like something of an outsider. His family lived on the western, poorer edge of Salt Lake City. They weren’t related to any of the prominent LDS families. His father never received a significant Church calling until later in life. But somehow Moyle found the will and desire to succeed; and as he demonstrates in his memoirs, he spent his life lifting himself up by his own bootstraps.

Yet in seeking success and the esteem of those around him, Moyle rarely conformed to their expectations; rather, he usually followed his own independent path. At a time when Mormons considered the law one of the lowliest “professions” imaginable—President John Taylor warned Moyle in a blessing that the law is “a dangerous profession” full of “chicanery” and “fraud” (110)—Moyle completed a law degree at the University of Michigan in 1885. When he later became involved in politics in an increasingly Republican Utah, he did so as a Democrat. He ran for governor in 1900 and 1904, losing both times. In 1914, when Senator Reed Smoot looked virtually unbeatable, Moyle contested Smoot’s seat and only narrowly lost. But in 1917 Moyle’s persistence paid off when President Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, appointed him Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, the highest executive position a Utahn or Mormon had ever held up to that time.

Upon his release in the early 1920s, Moyle had spent the better part of thirty years as an embattled but faithful Mormon Democrat in a Republican-led state and Church. Much to Moyle’s chagrin, he had never been called to any greater ecclesiastical responsibility than that of high councilman. His faithfulness was rewarded in 1928, however, when President Heber J. Grant called Moyle to serve as president of the Eastern States Mission, the most important mission in the Church at the time. And then, in 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed the seventy-five-year-old Moyle as Commissioner of Customs. Moyle held the position until 1939 when he was appointed special assistant to the Treasury Secretary. Finally, in 1940, at the age of eighty-one, he retired. He died in 1946.

The memoirs say surprisingly little, if anything, about certain subjects we would expect to hear more of, such as the death throes of authorized plural marriage, discouragement over political defeats, the Depression in Utah, the impact of the New Deal, personal financial matters, or even Moyle’s family life. They also do not say much about subjects modern readers might want to know more about, such as race relations in North Carolina or Moyle’s feelings on white supremacy in his beloved Democratic Party.

But what Moyle overlooks, he makes up for with his insightful observations on two particular topics. Appropriately enough for a book entitled Mormon Democrat, these two themes are Mormonism and the Democratic Party. Why aren’t Mormons Democrats? This question haunted Moyle throughout his career. The Republican Party, he never tired of reminding people, denounced polygamy in its very first platform. For decades the Republicans fought Utah statehood efforts. Recalling evangelical/Republican efforts in Utah, he fulminated:

There was no fundamentally American political principle that they would not have sacrificed to achieve their ambition and determination to secure the political control of the Utah Territory and the destruction of Mormonism. . . . Not a few of them placed no limit of the executive and judicial action they would take to secure for the minority control of the majority and to deprive the majority of its most fundamental political rights. (155)

In contrast, the Democratic Party, Moyle contended, had always defended states’ rights and the right of Utahns to govern themselves. Democrats like President Grover Cleveland had fought Republican efforts to disfranchise Mormons and disincorporate the LDS Church.

Before the Saints disbanded their own exclusively Mormon Peoples Party in 1891, most clearly sympathized with the Democrats; and yet once they actually began affiliating with the national parties, within a few years the majority of them had lined up with the Republicans! Moyle couldn’t fathom it: “What was the justification for such stultification, ingratitude, and deception in the face of gratitude that should be due the Democrats?” (157).

He had some answers to his question, though none were very pleasing. First of all, he suspected that LDS and Republican leaders had agreed upon a quid pro quo to the effect that Mormon leaders would persuade more Saints to vote Republican—certainly enough to give the party a chance—in exchange for statehood. Moyle agreed upon the necessity of dividing the Saints politically. Otherwise the bitter Mormon/non-Mormon political divide would simply continue under the rubric of the Democrats and Republicans. What troubled him was that once LDS leaders achieved Republican parity with the Democrats, they did not stop: They kept pushing Republicanism. For years, Moyle snorted, partisan Republican LDS leaders like Joseph F. Smith, Francis M. Lyman, and John Henry Smith openly counseled members of the Church to follow their “file leaders” and vote Republican, while Democratic LDS figures such as Moses Thatcher and B. H. Roberts were reprimanded for being equally partisan. Most Mormon Democrats, Moyle groaned, “simply kept quiet through all of this because they wanted to avoid displeasing the Brethren” (159). The result was that many Saints came to believe that a vote cast for a Republican was a vote for the Almighty.

But perhaps even more crucial in making Mormons Republicans, Moyle conceded, were tariff policies. Democratic free trade policies hurt Utah’s fledgling industries, while Republican high tariff policies protected them and echoed Brigham Young’s doctrine of home industry. The 1913 Underwood Tariff, signed by Woodrow Wilson, protected eastern-manufactured products but covered few of the products made in Utah. Naturally, Utahns voted for their pocketbooks, perhaps even more so than for their religion. “In my opinion,” Moyle wrote Franklin Roosevelt, “we would probably have held Utah notwithstanding the Mormon leadership but for the tariff” (261-62). Moyle tried for years to change the tariff policies of the Democratic Party, but to little avail.

Moyle’s political interaction with LDS leaders also caused him to reflect deeply upon the nature of inspiration in Mormonism generally, A firm believer in the separation of Church and state, Moyle believed that LDS supervision and inspiration should pertain only to ecclesiastical matters. When ecclesiastical oversight had historically extended into other realms, as in Brigham Young’s Utah, Moyle considered such arrangements good for the time, but now outdated. He insisted that Church leaders must today live up to their own, much more recent, public assertions of political noninvolvement and that, when they ventured out into the temporal realm of politics, they were as subject to criticism as anyone else. As Moyle wrote his memoirs in the midst of World War II, for example, the Deseret News ran editorials critical of Franklin Roosevelt, calling for the election of his unknown Republican opponent. “What a pitiful sight it presents,” Moyle lamented, “for men claiming to be guided by divine light in a matter of such importance” (28).

But Moyle had misgivings about the inspiration of Mormon leaders on even nonpolitical matters. “[They] are so much like other men,” he observed, “that it is hard to determine whether they are inspired of God on a particular issue or by their own mortal, fallible views” (26). He thought that the New Deal, for example, had as much, and probably more, to do with inspiring the Church Welfare Program than anything divine. He worried about the impact of wealth on LDS inspiration: “The President of the Church has long been a director of the Union Pacific Railroad and enjoys the privileges and advantages of that office such as an occasional private car, travel privileges, director’s compensations, etc. His point of view is therefore naturally altered by that human experience” (23).

The memoirs also include a rather substantial concluding essay on the apostolic appointments of men such as Brigham Young, Jr., Owen Woodruff, and Abraham H. Cannon—all children of previous LDS apostles and presidents. Moyle argues that these appointments were the result of nepotism rather than inspiration. His misgivings on LDS inspiration even extended to early Mormonism. The theocratic structure of pioneer Utah, he wrote, “though exercised with much wisdom did develop dictatorial power” (308). And had Joseph Smith lived to preside in the Rocky Mountains, he concluded, power probably would have gone to his head even more than it did to Brigham Young’s.

Yet despite his doubts, Moyle’s testimony of Mormonism was very solid at its center. Unlike most early LDS lawyers who had gone back east for schooling, Moyle adhered to the faith. and like everything else he did, he did not do so sheepishly. He defended Mormonism so eloquently at Michigan that he was elected president of his law school club. In Washington, D. C., he pressed to have an LDS chapel built despite the wishes of Reed Smoot, who preferred the less conspicuous practice of holding services in his home. Moyle finally got his wish in 1933 when he dedicated the statue of Moroni standing atop the impressive Washington Chapel. And as mission president, Moyle introduced a number of mass communication technologies that would have wide-ranging impact on missionary work, including extensive radio programming and the first film about Mesoamerican archaeology and the Book of Mormon. Indeed, the president of the Church thought quite highly of Moyle: “President Grant said to me later that he had suggested to the council [of the Twelve] the consideration of my name for Apostle and that the objection raised against it was my age” (240). Even Moyle’s qualms about Church leaders could have a faithful lining: He interpreted the early removal of almost all of the so-called nepotistic apostles (either through death or expulsion) as evidence “that the Lord is at the helm, piloting the ship to its destined port” (297).

Indeed, Moyle seemed remarkably adept at balancing opposing forces within himself. To sustain Mormon leaders in their religious callings while opposing them politically during a period of such intense partisanship—and to do so for so many years!—was a rather exceptional balancing act. Yet despite his doubts and questions, Moyle did not seem to undergo much of the inner turmoil of cognitive dissonance that so many other dissenters in authoritarian religions experience. He almost seemed to be at home when out-of-place. He was a Mormon missionary in a violent, Protestant South, a lawyer in a community hostile to lawyers, a Democrat in a Republican society, a rural Mormon in East Coast cities, an independent in a religion of obedience, a straight-talker in a period of ambiguity and dissimilation, and a nobody who made it in a nepotistic culture but whose son, Henry D. Moyle, would be appointed to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1947 and later serve as First Counselor to President David O. McKay. The competing pressures of these dichotomies must have been immense, yet Moyle bore them all well.

1. Interestingly enough, Gordon B. Hinckley wrote a little-known biography of Moyle in 1951 entitled, James Henry Moyle: The Story of a Distinguished American and an Honored Churchman (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1951). Hinckley essentially completed an unfinished manuscript that the late John Henry Evans had begun.