Book Review: Qualities That Count: Heber J. Grant as Businessman, Missionary, and Apostle

June 19, 2005 | 11 comments
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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.

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11 Responses to Book Review: Qualities That Count: Heber J. Grant as Businessman, Missionary, and Apostle

  1. Kevin Barney on June 19, 2005 at 9:47 pm

    Thanks for this installment in your continuing series of book reviews, Julie. I have the volume (since I subscribe to BYU Studies), and I would like to read it, but there are a lot of other volumes with higher priority in my pile. If it were an actual biography and not just a series of essays, I might move it forward in the line.

    I spoke with Ron a little bit at MHA in Vermont. He is both a terrific historian and a very gracious gentleman. He’s exactly the kind of guy who should be doing this work–with full access.

  2. Seth Rogers on June 19, 2005 at 11:18 pm

    Thanks for the Elder Packer link. That was very interesting.

  3. Floyd the Wonderdog on June 20, 2005 at 12:42 pm

    I generally leaf through the BYU Studies and read the articles in the order of personal interest. With this issue, I read from cover to cover with an interest and intensity that I haven’t experienced for years. I wasn’t able to put this down (which made taking a shower problematic). When I was younger, I read biographies with a view to improving my own life. Unfortunately, all too often the church biographies don’t give us enough of a glimpse of the person behind the biography. I want to know how someone who succeeded in dealing with a trial did it. And perhaps this was why I liked this book so well. I felt that I knew Heber J. Grant better after reading this biography. I could sense an internal struggle to be materially successful and a faithful saint. In the end I found myself wishing that the book was longer.

  4. Lorin on June 20, 2005 at 3:46 pm

    I agree with the above comments. This is an outstanding contribution to the materials about our presidents. I used some of it while teaching in the HPQ about Pres. Grant. I feel it supplemented the lessons wonderfully. I came away from the material in this volume with a great fondness for Pres. Grant. His selflessness, his devotion to the cause, and his struggles with limitations are inspiring. And I must say, it takes a very honest historian to adequately tell the story of an absolutely honest man. It is a shame we don’t have more from this author on the life of Heber J. Grant.

  5. Dave on June 20, 2005 at 4:49 pm

    Julie, this bio, along with the recent David O. McKay biography, seems to be signalling a new and more appealing approach to LDS biography. I think it is a great development. Are there any other new biographies slated to be published in the next year or so (apart from Rough Stone Rolling) that you are aware of?

  6. Julie in Austin on June 20, 2005 at 6:12 pm

    Dave–

    I’m not aware of anything, but I’m sure the hive mind will chime in with anything out there. It seems that the McKay papers at the UofU will be grist for a lot of mills–not just Pres. McKay.

  7. Steve Evans on June 20, 2005 at 6:28 pm

    Julie, a great review. Thank you! I’d love to twitch my nose as well to conjure up more of your reviews.

  8. Julie in Austin on June 20, 2005 at 6:37 pm

    Steve Evans–

    No twitching necessary. Just come babysit so I can read more ;)

  9. Lorin on June 20, 2005 at 8:07 pm

    Dave, (#5)
    Shouldn’t we include in this trend “J. Reuben Clark, the Early Years” by Quinn, “Things in Heaven and Earth, the Life and Times of Wilford Woodruff” by Alexander, and “Brigham Young: American Moses” by Arrington?

  10. D. Fletcher on June 21, 2005 at 2:32 pm

    Interesting. Does the bio talk about his polygamy at all?

  11. D. Fletcher on June 21, 2005 at 2:35 pm

    Sorry to ask the question — I now see that it does. Ron Walker did his research many years ago — this bio has been held up a long time. Heather Bennett and I are Heber’s great-grandchildren by his third wife, Emily Wells.