Heber J. Grant’s insomnia may have been the best thing to happen to the study of early twentieth century Church history.
Ronald Walker was only a few days into his job on the staff of Church Historian Leonard J. Arrington when Arrington asked him if he’d like to write a biography of President Heber J. Grant. Because President Grant had dealt with his life-long insomnia by dictating his correspondence into recording machines he kept near his bed, his papers constitute, according to Walker, “an embarrassment of riches” numbering into the hundreds of thousands of pages. Walker envisioned writing a series of articles and then probably a multi-volume biography of President Grant. He had only written some articles on President Grant’s early years when “intervening circumstances at the Historical Department . . . required [him] to put aside the biography and move on.” We hear no more of this save a line in a footnote that since “current Church Archive policy limits the access and use of materials, many footnote citations have not been verified.”
This review (and, take note, the subsequent comments) are not the place to hash out opinions on the telling of Church history. I am sympathetic to the position taken by President Packer that the mantle is far, far greater than the intellect and that we should be wary of historians who would attempt to tell the Saints’ story while ignoring the role God did and does play in it. At the same time, my experience reading non-hagiographic biographies has been to fall in love with the Church leaders they depict. Apparently that was Ronald Walker’s response as well:
So rich a collection of information before me, I moved step-by-step from my ‘hardly speaking acquaintance’ with President Grant to an easy but respectful familiarity, and I must say, in this case, familiarity bred respect, not the opposite. I found my biographical subject to be ‘human’ in the best sense of the term. Certainly there were frailties, but generally these were products of what I saw as compounded virtues.
Perhaps because of this attitude, this book succeeds, perhaps better than any other LDS history that I have read, in intertwining the sacred and the secular influences on its subject. President Grant is the ideal candidate for this treatment: he was primarily a businessman: at fifteen, he joined an insurance firm; at nineteen, he bought out the firm’s owners and was on his way to epitomizing the Gilded Age capitalist. By his early twenties, he was earning about ten times what the average Utahn did. Walker writes that “his pet ambition was ‘to have a lot of money and to have no love for it and to do good with it.’” And, believe it or not, Walker makes fascinating stuff of the Panic of 1893 and then-Elder Grant’s role in saving the banks of Utah (he recognized that the Church was on the brink of the “perfect horror” of another Kirtland Bank failure). What is most interesting here is the mix of wheeling and dealing with praying and fasting. We see Elder Grant applying his formidable skills in negotiating loans while also pleading with the Lord to aid the Church. His business acumen made him a most unusual apostle, yet one ideally suited to aid the Church through that period (and, later, to lead the Church through the Great Depression).
A second complicated issue taken up ably by Walker is polygamy. I think it is safe to say that most twenty-first century Saints view our polygamist heritage with a cringe and a shudder. But Walker does a fine job painting polygamous relationships with pathos and honesty. An entire essay focuses on the “exile” of city girl Emily Wells Grant to an achingly slow Colorado town so Heber J. Grant could avoid cohabitation charges. Another essay focuses on President Grant’s mother, Rachel Grant, who struggled with polygamy as well. When it appeared that Joseph Smith was interested in taking her as a plural wife, she decided that she would “sooner go to hell as a virtuous woman than to heaven as a whore” (ouch) and spent ten years being ‘inactive’ on the East Coast before returning to the fold–and becoming Jedediah Grant’s seventh wife. (Interestingly, she was married to him for time only but sealed to Joseph Smith. Depending on how one interprets this, it might be possible to say that Heber J. Grant was Joseph Smith’s son.)
Another troubling topic Walker handles well (for the most part) is Elder Grant’s role in the turmoil surrounding the succession of Wilford Woodruff after the death of President Taylor. I say ‘for the most part’ because I wonder if the details of a sad episode in the history of the Cannon and Wells families needed to be publicly rehashed for a new generation in order to tell this story. Nonetheless, I don’t know that most Saints realize that the issue of apostolic succession was not settled at this point and led to rather heated discussions.
Walker is at his best when he chronicles the challenges that Heber J. Grant faced and how he responded to them. The future President struggled with the Word of Wisdom, with peers who laughed at his poor grammar, with the mission call that never came, and with the challenges of opening a mission in Japan (complete with new converts breaking into the mission home and his complete inability to learn Japanese).
To sum, Ronald Walker is precisely the kind of person, if any, we would want sifting through the private papers of a Church President. I’d love to twitch my nose a la Samantha and order up the several volumes on President Grant that he could have written. But instead, what we have here is a somewhat disjointed collection of essays. Not precisely chronological, not without significant redundancies and lacunas and tangents, and not telling Grant’s story nearly as well as they could if they were part of a coherent whole. If you are looking for a biography of President Grant’s early years, you will be disappointed. But that doesn’t diminish my gratitude for the several solid essays that comprise this peek into President Grant’s life.