I was asked to prepare and give a talk on my Grandmother Jolley’s life story at her recent funeral. In going back through her history, one thing struck me more than anything else: that the Salt Lake City she grew up in was crowded with people whose names, today, sound like a hit parade of a Mormonism gone by.
This is how I put it in my talk at her funeral:
Barbara [Kirkham Jolley] was born and raised in the Avenues in Salt Lake City, back when the phrase â€œthe Avenuesâ€? told you all you needed to know about the families who lived there. She attended the old LeGrande Ward, which was full of Kirkhams. The Kirkhams and Wrights [Grandma’s mother was Mary Ethel Wright; her father Ebenezer John Kirkham] may not have been the most prestigious families in the Mormon world of Salt Lake City nearly a century ago, but they were certainly werenâ€™t the least either. Her uncle Oscar A. Kirkham was a life-long promoter of Scouting in the church, and a member of the First Council of the Seventy. S. Dilworth Young, Joseph Wirthlin Sr., Richard L. Evans, Lowell Bennion, Sterling W. Sill, Milton R. Hunter: these and many more appear in Barbara Kirkhamâ€™s story, noted in her journals or letters, as visitors to her home or speakers at youth meetings or presiding at her marriage or at the funerals for her mother and father. To someone of my generation, it gives a glimpse of a smaller, more intimate Mormon world, now mostly lost. Barbara was shaped by that world; to the end, despite her long adult life in the Uintah Basin town of Vernal, she considered herself a “city girl,” Salt Lake City born and bred. It gave her models that influenced her for all the rest of her life.
I confess that the mystique of that era has a hold over me. I listen to old stories, pick up biographies and histories, and catch glimpses of a moment from Mormon history when the church and its people and its culture and its location were perhaps as homogenous and settled and tight as they ever were, and ever will be again this side of the City of Enoch. True, by the time you get to the 1920s and 30s and 40s the legacy of the pioneer generation was mostly gone: the communal economic experiments were over, polygamy was mostly successfully packed away, independent political parties were dead and buried; basically, the modern assimilation stage of Mormondom was fully underway. Supposedly a radical communitarian like myself ought to turn up my nose at all the compromises the church made with American culture during this era. But I can’t; not quite. I can’t because, however Americanized the church and its leaders and membership became in the decades leading up to and through World War II, the overwhelming Mormonness of the Salt Lake City community shines through nonetheless.
It’s odd: one might conclude, looking at the intense culture wars of today, and the public religiosity which so clearly characterizes the speeches and strategies of many contemporary political leaders and parties, that we are much more serious about our religion today than our grandparents must have been. Look at my grandmother, for example: there she was, involved in sororities and civic clubs, dancing all night at Saltair, attending the University of Utah and going to rounds of parties and social events, all without the slightest whiff of tension over what a Mormon girl is “supposed” to do. The public rhetoric of figures like David O. McKay or any of the general authorites I mentioned above was, in many ways, far more “secular” than what we have come to expect these days; rather than quoting statistics about abortion or same-sex marriage, general authorities would quote Shakespeare or Dale Carnegie (and probably a lot more of the latter than the former). Very civil, very liberal, very establishment, very American.
Yet such a conclusion is also very wrong. My grandmother’s life growing up on the Avenues was thoroughly religious and Mormon in a way far beyond that of probably almost everyone reading these words, because her life was crowded by and enclosed within Mormonism in a way almost impossible in America today. Her family had no television, no cable, no satellite; they didn’t even have a car until she was 14 (and she learned to drive it before her father). What she knew were the schoolteachers at East High School and the leaders of Chi Omega at the university and Uncle Oscar and his many visitors and the men in their hats coming home on the trolley car in the evenings and the women trading advice and recipes on their front porches. Everyone was Mormon, or practically so; everyone observed the unwritten rules of Mormon life, and hence there was rarely much need to talk about it–which also means there was little obsessing over how Mormons are supposed to act or what they were supposed to believe, because since everyone you saw was a member (even that oddball Larry, who surely does have some weird ideas, but c’mon, he’s Milton’s boy, you know he’s all right), plainly it was possible to be a Mormon in a lot of different ways. It was a world–one created by a variety of factors: large extended families, a bustling yet still somewhat enclosed economic environment, an absence of alternative media or diverse inward migration, a smaller overall population, a decentralized and uncorrelated church structure–where an otherwise ordinary, not particularly studious but still plainly smart girl like Barbara Kirkham could be looked up by Lowell Bennion at the U, because she was Oscar’s niece and he thought she might appreciate a chat. Not a lecture or a warning (because what, really, was the source of moral peril she ought to be informed about and enlisted to fight against?); just shooting the breeze with a girl whose options were then wide open. Of course, the range of those options was in fact rather small. But perhaps that is exactly the point.
The homey picture I’m painting is false in important respects, of course: there has been contention and opposition present in every moment of the church, and the pre-WWII years were no exception. Moreover, there is much not to like about the “Mormon establishment” of 60 or 70 years ago: along with the social homogeneity came an often terrible racism which later prophets had to fight against; the trusting, liberal, and homegrown intellectual environment which characterized mid-century Mormonism resulted in a couple of generations of Mormons who barely ever cracked the Book of Mormon; and so on. Maybe, if one has to do the usual thing and choose to analyze only two extreme options, it really is better to stick with the fire-and-brimstone, sovereign communitarianism of Brigham Young’s Mormonism, as a counterpoint to the comfortable and often lazy Mormon kitsch of today. But, after having thought for a while about my grandmother’s world, let me put in a plug for that lost third option, that fedora-wearing, trolley-riding, life insurance-selling, bourgeois Mormon of the Avenues during the Depression and the war, an era when Primary Wednesdays sometimes were merged with band practice, priesthood interviews sometimes took place at Elks’ Club meetings, and–hey, that just might be Stephen L. Richards sitting behind you at the public lecture on birdsongs. If the gospel in its fullest form can ever be truly compatible with city life with all its competition and variety (and I have my doubts), then that place and that era may have been the closest and truest merger we’ve yet seen in this dispensation. Maybe it wasn’t the best Mormon society ever, but it was one of the tightest, and there is something to be said for that. If nothing else, in my view at least, the goods it surrounded my grandmother with as she grew up definitely outweighed its harms.