March 21, 2011

Review: Orson F. Whitney, "Saturday Night Thoughts"

Title: Saturday Night Thoughts
("Forgotten Classics" edition)
Author: Orson F. Whitney
Publisher: Grandin Press
Genre: Religion
Year: 2010
Pages: 283
ISBN13: 978-1-936416-10-3
Binding: softcover
Price: $15.95

An estimated 3% of the world's population fell victim to the 1918 flu pandemic.1 Mormons didn't escape unscathed, and as a precautionary measure the Church suspended church services and other public gatherings, including the Church's April 1919 General Conference. The Deseret Evening News sought "to fill in some degree a spiritual void" left by this lapse of meetings by publishing a series of articles by apostle Orson F. Whitney (vii). After receiving acclaim and encouragement from George Brimhall (president of BYU), Heber J. Grant (LDS Church president), Reed Smoot (Utah senator) and "other prominent people," Whitney decided to publish his weekly essays in book form.

Saturday Night Thoughts is thus an interesting if often-overlooked overview of Mormon doctrine as promulgated by an apostle and published "under the sanction of the General Authorities of the Church" in 1921 (viii).2 Ever dispensationally minded, Whitney uses the essays to depict a grand sweep across the history of time, from Adam to the Millennial reign of Jesus Christ, interspersing discussions of prophets, Christ, war, priesthood, life after death, and other topics. "Saturday, in Christian lands," he explains, "is a day set apart for housecleaning, a time for 'putting things to rights,' in preparation for the Sabbath." These regular Saturdays are symbolic of a "greater Saturday" which precedes the Sabbath millennial reign of Christ: "The World's Saturday Night must necessarily precede the World's Sunday Morning" (3). As various signs of the times came to pass, Whitney hoped to encourage holiness in preparation: "Housecleaning is in progress, and Saturday's work must be done and out of the way, before the Lord of the Sabbath appears" (6).    

Whitney and Seeking Respectability
Writing in the midst of Enlightenment-tinged critiques of religion, Whitney was acutely aware of criticisms leveled against the educational attainments of his fellow Latter-day Saints, “a people who are popularly supposed to be enemies of education, despisers of learning, haters of books and schools, and of everything, in fact, that is pure, ennobling and refined.”3 He made a point to use his literary talents to overturn such views, to make Latter-day Saints appear more respectable in the eyes of skeptics. His efforts to this end are traceable throughout Saturday Night Thoughts. For instance, his second essay responds to "a learned gentleman" whose lecture tour passed through Utah, inviting people to come out of their "'haunted houses' and build for their souls 'more stately mansions,' rounded upon the rock of reason and scientific truth" (7). Prevalent proneness to discredit the "supernatural" and deny modern prophets led Whitney to differentiate between false and true prophets. He encouraged readers to use "a simple and sure test of prophecy" by examining a prophet's claims and seeing whether they "come to pass" (10) in order to avoid gullibility.4

Whitney was unimpressed by academic approaches to his own religion: "Strange it is that men and women, intelligent, educated, and profound, do not see in this great religious phenomenon something more than a topic to be treated lightly, or in a spirit of harshness and intolerance. Giants in intellect as to other themes, when they deal with the doctrines, aims and attitude of the Latter-day Saints, they seem suddenly changed into dwarfs, mere children" (53). It would be impossible, Whitney believed, to respond to all accusations and complaints. Instead, publishing "some of the more temperate judgments" would stand as a witness that Mormons could be taken more seriously. Whitney included I. Woodbridge Riley, "a student of psychology and an applicant for a doctor's degree at Yale University." But rather than vilifying Riley, Whitney expressed his pleasure with Riley's attempt at a detached approach to the controversial Mormon prophet. Riley's thesis paper, highly influential to Fawn Brodie's later treatment in No Man Knows My History, examined Joseph Smith as the sufferer of epileptic fits. Whitney appreciated Riley's "distinct departure" from the "charge of conscious duplicity" on Smith's part common to earlier criticisms, but he objected that such a "magnificent church organization" and Smith's "sublime doctrines, replete with poetry and philosophy, couched in logical and majestic phrasing" could not have sprung "from the diseased brain of a fourteen-year-old boy who had fallen in an epileptic fit" (55).

"The Gospel's Accessories"
Other examples of Whitney's accommodation of religion to scientific and technological advances could be given,5 but perhaps the most obvious way he sought to bring respectability to his fellow Mormons was through the use of non-Mormon sources. "Truth, whether uttered by ancient sage or by modern seer, is worthy of all acceptance" (213). Whitney includes multiple extended justifications for his appeal to non-Mormon thinkers. His arguments are a welcome contrast to the typical discussions of the "Great Apostasy" and the "Dark Ages" said to precede the restoration of the gospel in 1830. Article 13 describes various gospel dispensations noting that the gospel "is not of any one time nor of any once place" (73). Before quoting the Book of Mormon's claim that "the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word, yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should have" (Alma 29:8), Whitney places "all that is precious and exalting" within the sphere of Mormonism:

There is but one Savior, and but one Plan of Salvation; yet that Savior has many servants, saviors in a subordinate sense/ and His saving plan encompasses many truths, apportioned to the several branches of the human family, in measure large or small, according to their capacity to receive, and their ability to wisely use the knowledge meted out to them (74).

Article 34 explains that while there "is only one way into the kingdom of heaven" there are "many ways into the human heart," and the Church, in promulgating truth, "has legitimate use for every avenue to that heart. Poetry, music, art in general, as well as science and philosophy—all these can be utilized as auxiliaries in the carrying on of the Lord's manifold work" (209).  

Whitney makes use of such auxiliaries. His first article kicks things off by invoking Plato, Emerson and Joseph Smith (3). Elsewhere we run into Alexander Pope (17), Austin Farrar (250), Thomas Carlyle (221), Charles Dickens (275), William Shakespeare (245), Dante (253) and multiple other writers. Herbert Spencer and John Fiske are quoted to support Joseph Smith's view of the eternal duration of matter (66) and Cunningham Geike, a forgotten Scottish clergyman, is cited to explain Elijah's importance in the biblical text.6 "Does it sound as if 'Mormonism' takes no cognizance of what is going on in the outside world?" Whitney asks (75).

A perhaps related effort to seek respect from other faiths is Whitney's attempts at respect towards other religious beliefs. Rather than mocking a God "without body, parts, or passions," a repeated criticism propounded by earlier LDS writers like Orson and Parley Pratt, Whitney seeks common ground by comparing that creedal deity to the Mormon understanding of "the Divine personality" of God, which emanates throughout all of creation (17-18). He still invites others to acknowledge the corporeal Father and Son of Mormonism (18) but recognizes that "honest idolatry is infinitely preferable to dishonest worship," including that of some Mormons (228).

Fading themes
The "Approaching Mormon Doctrine" statement from LDS Public Affairs notes that "some doctrines are more important than others and might be considered core doctrines. For example, the precise location of the Garden of Eden is far less important than doctrine about Jesus Christ and His atoning sacrifice."7 Whitney's book is interesting for a contemporary Mormon to read in order to get a feel for some of the shifting emphases in popular Mormon discourse. Current Mormons may not be familiar with the "believing blood" motif, which accounts for the type of person who will listen to the gospel message and join the church as opposed to those who do not feel so inclined (113). While focusing on all of North and South America as comprising Zion, Whitney is still quite specific about naming "Jackson County, Missouri" as the specific place for the city of Zion (140). He also includes multiple references to Mother in Heaven (18, 63, 206, 243, etc.). Whitney's "threefold mission of the gospel of Jesus Christ," to "redeem, save, and glorify," is an interesting forerunner to today's fourfold mission (63).

Whitney himself accounted for changes in practice and doctrinal emphasis in Article 29 on "Church Government" (175): "The Church changes in appearance as it grows," he reasoned, "and despite not changing its "character or principles" there would be "an evolution, a great and mighty development" as evidenced by the differences in the Church of Whitney's day compared to that of Joseph Smith's (176-177).

Creative conjectures
Of course, there is plenty of material in Whitney's articles which current Church members will find very familiar (including several anecdotes reused by LeGrand Richards in his book A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, see pp. 54, 275 for two examples). Whitney has a way of approaching familiar LDS topics from a different perspective, however, which make for a fruitful reading ("Article 33: Meaning and Mode of Baptism" is one example, 201-208).

Whitney is particularly interested in the Mormon concept of the human spirit as a counterpart to the physical body. Using the Mormon teaching that only the body and spirit united eternally can receive a fulness of glory, Whitney justifies the LDS practice of baptisms in behalf of the dead. The body and spirit are joined for the duration of one's mortal life. In baptism, Whitney advances, the body is represented by the water and the spirit is represented by receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost. Neither the body alone, nor the spirit alone can be baptized, they must be baptized together. "A person can believe and repent in the spirit world," Whitney explains, "but cannot be baptized there. This makes necessary baptism by proxy" (203-204).

Another creative conjecture Whitney includes is his familiar description of "spirit memories." "Why are we drawn toward certain persons, and they toward us, independently of any known previous acquaintance?" (237). Meeting familiar faces, hearing familiar streams of music, and recognizing gospel truths each evince memories from the premortal state, a view which President Joseph F. Smith "heartily endorsed" years previous in a letter Whitney includes in his article (238-239).

Whitney's forty articles of Saturday Night Thoughts certainly make for some interesting Sunday afternoon reading.

Grandin Press edition
As with the two previous volumes in the Orson F. Whitney collection of the "Forgotten Classics" series,8 this reprinted edition does not contain any additional contextual explanations, essays, footnotes, indexes, or other added material. A few errors from the first edition are repeated in this edition, but the editor(s) have realigned quoted material to better offset it from Whitney's own prose (see for example 74, 84, 124). Saturday Night Thoughts is in the public domain and available in free .pdf form. Versions of out of print books like this are quite accessible for users of e-readers, which ought to be an incentive for the series editors to add something extra to their reprinted editions to help justify the purchase, be it a new introductory essay by a noted scholar, an index, or something else. At the same time, as I prefer to read printed books this edition is an inexpensive alternative to printing my own copy or straining my eyes on my pc's screen. I appreciate Grandin Press being able to resurrect the book at a low cost, making it available in paperback, but would have also enjoyed additional material to help situate the book within its time and within contemporary Mormonism.

1.  Jeffery K. Taubenberger and David M. Morens, "1918 Influenza: the Mother of All Pandemics," Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, January, 2006.

2.  Does Whitney's book qualify to be viewed as "official doctrine"? The recent statement from LDS Public Affairs ("Approaching Mormon Doctrine") leans towards no. Although it would be interesting to explore the question of how it was viewed then, having been originally published in "the Church organ" and "under the sanction of the General Authorities" (vii-viii). Grandin's edition notes that it "is not an official publication" of the Church and its views "are the responsibility of the authors, and do not necessarily represent the position of the Church or of Grandin Press, LLC." Grandin's edition does not compare the Deseret Evening News articles with their counterparts in Saturday Night Thoughts.

3. Orson F. Whitney, “Home Literature,” first delivered as a speech by Bishop Orson F. Whitney, at the Y.M.M.I.A. Conference, June 3, 1888. See

4. Whitney quotes Deuteronomy 18:22, a passage which has alternately been used to discredit Joseph Smith. Unlike the other two Grandin Press editions, scripture references are not added into the main body of the text but remain in the footnotes. Grandin Press has silently converted chapter footnotes into book endnotes.

5. For example, Article 35 tackles the question of modern miracles. Whitney exults in "marvelous manifestations of scientific power" which would have "been deemed visionary and impossible in former ages," but cautions readers against "rushing to the opposite extreme [of] that ultrapractical spirit which fain would make all things commonplace, not only in manifestation, but in origin" (218-19).

6. Whitney alternately refers to him as Geikie and Geike, the latter is correct (164, 209, 278). Grandin Press's edition silently repeats the same error. Perhaps this is one of the errors which a new edition could point out to readers in an introductory essay of new footnote. Whitney quotes from Geike's popular low church work, Hours With the Bible: Scriptures in Light of Modern Discovery and Knowledge (New York: John B. Alden Publisher, 1888). Elsewhere Whitney is critical of biblical "higher criticism" which is "a do away with everything savoring of the supernatural" in the Bible (219).

7.  LDS Public Affairs,"Approaching Mormon Doctrine," 4 May 2007.

8. See my reviews of Whitney's Elias—an Epic of the Ages and Life of Heber C. Kimball, the other two Whitney books in the "Forgotten Classics" series.


dltayman said...

Regarding the "Believing Blood" theme - Is this related to Joseph's 1839 expounding on the difference in Israelite Blood and Gentile Blood, and how each are differently affected by the HG? I'd be interested in seeing who picked up on this and ran with it, and how it evolved.

BHodges said...

Whitney doesn't directly refer to Joseph Smith as a source here. He is explaining the relatively rapid spread of Christianity after the death of Christ as resulting partly from earlier scatterings of Israelite bloodlines throughout the nations.

dltayman said...

So the concept expressed is that those with Israelite blood are more likely to accept the Gospel message? Apart from those in the NT who specifically rejected Christ, apparently.

I guess I'm wondering where this thought began, and if it's an offshoot of Joseph's teaching that the power of The Holy Ghost is stronger with "a man who is of the literal seed of Abraham, than one that is a Gentile, though it may not have half as much visible effect upon the body; for as the Holy Ghost falls upon one of the literal seed of Abraham, it is calm and serene; and his whole soul and body are only exercised by the pure spirit of intelligence; while the effect of the Holy Ghost upon a Gentile, is to purge out the old blood, and make him actually of the seed of Abraham. That man that has none of the blood of Abraham (naturally) must have a new creation by the Holy Ghost. In such a case, there may be more of a powerful effect upon the body, and visible to the eye, than upon an Israelite, while the Israelite at first might be far before the Gentile in pure intelligence." - I don't recall any sermons (or scriptures?) before that 1839 discourse where an actual practical distinction in behavior/spiritual effect between Israelite and Gentile blood was made. Any ideas?

BHodges said...

Parenthetically, I recognized references to Spencer and Fisk in works by B.H. Roberts. Matt Bowman points them out in stuff by John Widstoe as well. See Matthew Bowman, “The Crisis of Mormon Christology: History, Progress, and Protestantism, 1880-1930,” Fides et Historia 40:2 (2008): 2.

BHodges said...

I haven't raced the origins of that but perhaps it comes up in Armand Mauss's work on race and Mormonism? "All Abraham's Children"? Still need to read that one.

dltayman said...

I am woefully unread in general when it comes to Armand Mauss.

BHodges said...

I still haven't read All Abraham's Children or Angel/Beehive.

BHodges said...

for shame

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