I’m excited to have Newell Bringhurst back on the show. Newell’s latest book is the short biography of Harold B. Lee. Lee had one of the shortest tenures as LDS Church president, but that belies his lasting influence on the Church. Lee is the one who really implemented correlation in the Church. We’ll talk about Lee’s early life growing up, his political ambitionns, and his time as a general authority in the LDS Church. Check out our conversation…

Early Life of Harold B Lee

GT: Well, let’s dive into Harold B. Lee: Life and Thought. So, one of the interesting things is I think he was ordained as a 10-year-old Deacon. Is that right?

Newell  07:01  That’s correct, yeah. That’s very unusual, because I didn’t realize that was even within legal or within church canon that they would allow somebody to be ordained as a 10-year-old deacon. That was reflective of his precocity, that he was extremely bright. He stood out in terms of his intellect and his drive and just who he was.

GT  07:27  Yeah, yeah. So, I mean, that’s pretty precocious.

Newell  07:31  (Chuckling) [Yeah,] a 10-year-old Deacon.

GT  07:33  It seems like he grew up in Idaho. Was it near Ezra Taft Benson? I think it was.

Newell  07:38  Yeah, they were close. They lived close to one another, but they never knew each other until they got into Oneida Academy, which was sort of like the high school up there. They never really met or knew each other. But he lived in Clifton, Idaho, which is a very small town in the upper Cache valley. It’s a pretty rugged environment up there, because it’s about a 4000-foot elevation, harsh winters. So, if you farm up there, it’s a very precarious existence. He grew up in that precarious existence. The family struggled financially. And that was something, I think, that stayed with Harold B. Lee is the struggle of his own family to eke out a livelihood in that environment. I should mention, there was one other famous, noteworthy person that came out that small town, which has never had a population more than 2000 or 3000. Even right down to the present, it stayed pretty much the same size it was when Harold B. Lee was a boy.  Interestingly enough, the other very noteworthy person to come out of that town is Tara Westover, who is the author of Educated.[1] She talks about her hardscrabble childhood, and her parents were kind of nutty types. Unlike Harold B. Lee, they were almost on [the edge.] They were LDS. They were Mormon. But they were survivalist Mormons. They were right on the edge of the church, so to speak.

[1] Can be purchased at https://amzn.to/3SOpyiT

Lee’s Political & Welfare Work

GT  14:19  So, one of the interesting things was to learn about President Lee’s feelings on Prohibition. Can you talk about that?

Newell  14:29  Well, he was serving in politics at that time when Prohibition, the 18th Amendment was in effect. He was on the Salt Lake City Commission, and he had been appointed [to] that position, but he had to run for a full term. He was filling out the term of somebody who had passed on and [he] was on there by appointment. So, in the 1932 election, he was up for reelection. Also, on the ballot, what complicated his candidacy was there is this measure to repeal the 18th Amendment. Utah happened to be the one state left that they needed the vote to lift Prohibition. So, he was placed in the position of, “Where do you stand on this?”

Newell  15:39  Quite frankly, he ended up finessing the issue. He didn’t really come right out, “I’m either for it or against it.” But he did the politically expedient thing and saying that he wasn’t in favor of going back to the way the saloons were before Prohibition. But he wasn’t in favor. He indicated that Prohibition hadn’t quite worked the way that it should. But he did it in a very nuanced way.

Lee’s Stance on Race & Priesthood

GT  27:04  Right. So it’s interesting. I know, one of the things that really struck me, there was an attempt within President McKay’s administration to send some missionaries to Nigeria and Lee opposed that.

Newell  27:18  Yes, very much so. As I said, the thing that I found the most problematic in my opinion about Lee, was his attitudes on race. I mean, it conformed with his basic conservatism, his neoorthodoxy and his conservative [ideals.] He wasn’t a blatant outright racist, like some of the people that we’re really into the racist theology. He said his piece on the race issue in Youth of a Noble Birthright, which was published in a book,[1] which was originally a radio speech that he gave in 1945. It was subsequently published in a book, Youth and the Church. He defended the traditional arguments that they had been less valiant in the pre-existence. They were an accursed, dark-skinned race. I mean, he went along with all of those arguments. But he didn’t state them over and over and over again, the way that people like, President Joseph Fielding Smith did, who was the leading theologian, who really articulated and made him up to a fine, sharp point. Or, like his son-in-law, Bruce R. McConkie, who proclaimed it Mormon Doctrine,[2] in the work that was published in 1959. Or people like, I guess, Alvin R. Dyer, or Mark E. Peterson. I guess, Mark E. Peterson gave one of the most, I guess, pointed arguments. But Lee was not that way. I mean, he was steadfast in his belief that blacks were not worthy to receive the priesthood, and until the Lord spoke, that was going to be the doctrine of the Church. It would take the Lord speaking loud and clear, to make it clear that the ban was to be lifted. And he had no inspiration, whatsoever, that the Lord was speaking loud and clear to him to lift the ban and that was irrevocable right up until the time of his death.  

Newell  29:47  As I pointed out, in that letter that he writes to Hugh B. Brown’s daughter, concerning Hugh B. Brown’s granddaughter who had married a black man. It’s interesting. Her name is Rila Jorgensen. She’s writing Lee, saying, “Gosh, my son-in-law is just so distraught. He feels like he’s part of an accursed race. He’s not even worthy to be a Latter-day Saint and refuses to be baptized into the church.” Newell  30:23  Lee responds to that. This is three months before his death. And Lee responds to that letter by just completely ignoring the anguish of this young man and proceeding to lecture Hugh Brown’s daughter on the justification for the ban. He makes no reference at all to the anguish or the feelings of this young man, because he is so adamantly opposed. He’s already doubled down on the legitimacy of the ban in the wake of Stephen Taggart’s book,[3] which came out in the late 60s, and Lester Bush’s article.[4] He has doubled down that the ban is fixed doctrine. There’s no question in his mind, I must say, in his defense. But as a counter argument, I think it’s part of his overall belief in the conservative orthodoxy of Mormon doctrine and practices in general. I don’t see him as a blatant racist, per se. I just see him as fixed, because this is the way that churches operated, since going back to the mid-19th century.

[1] Can be purchased at https://amzn.to/3rFSJZs

[2] Can be purchased at https://amzn.to/2F8q9b7

[3] It is called “Mormonism’s Negro Policy: Social and Historical Origins” and can be purchased at https://amzn.to/3ekdKpq

[4] See https://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V08N01_13.pdf

We als cover Women, LGBT, and Race Parallels in LDS Church, Ervil LeBaron, the Brazil Temple, and Lee’s healtlh problems/death. Do you have memories of Pres Lee? What are your thoughts?