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This Is Why I Love to Read Old Letters: Heber J. Grant

By: Ardis E. Parshall - August 07, 2013

It’s a long post, but I suppose most readers will skim through the letter introductions and read only those that really interest them …

Heber Jeddy Grant (1856-1945), as an apostle or Church president for more than 60 years, is a well-known figure in Church history. Generations of Latter-day Saints, including those of us who never knew him in life, know of his baseball playing and hymn singing – activities which did not come naturally to him but which he learn through stubborn practice. Probably his most famous quotation (he was himself quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson) is “That which we persist in doing becomes easier to do, not that the nature of the thing has changed but that our power to do has increased.” We remember him for his promotion of the Word of Wisdom, his elegant penmanship, and, at Keepa, for his beard, and for two stories in which he figured: Jim the Penman and Champion Checkers Player, and for his fire insurance ads.

Although I have yet to read a volume of his letters (they must exist; I just haven’t yet happened to run across one to read), he was a prolific letter-writer whose letters appear very often in the collections of those with whom he remained in close touch, whether he was serving in distant mission fields himself or at home in Salt Lake writing to others far away. Some of the letters I’ve read are very personal; in other cases, his letters were written in conjunction with other Church leaders – certainly he must have agreed with the sentiments expressed in those joint letters, although it may be difficult to recognize his input into the wording.


His personally written letters can be intensely personal, as when he confessed to fellow apostle his (HJG’s) sense of failure in his mission to Japan. After almost two years in Japan, he wrote:

I hardly feel that I have done anything in this land, as I have given up the study of the language. I sometimes feel that I was greatly lacking in faith to have done so, but to look at it naturally the Lord would have had to work a miracle had I learned it, and I did not have the faith that He would do this for me, and to the end of my life I may feel that I have not done what He expected of me, and what I was sent here to do.

I feel that it was an honor to have been called of the Lord through His servants to open the gospel to this Nation, but I have not been able to feel in my heart that I have done all that I might have done, and so the honor is not what it would be had I been able to satisfy myself. If I felt perfectly satisfied I am sure the Lord and my brethren would be also. I have a willing heart, but I have not been a very good worker. “Good intentions” are the things that I have never thought much of, and it seems that these have been my main stock in trade in Japan.

President Grant very much appreciated mail from home, and for his own part supported quorum members when they, too, were away from home. From 1903:

I was much pleased to get your letter of the 18th. ult. I have not felt in the least neglected because but few of the members of the Quorum of the Apostles have written to me, as I am well aware that they are busy men, and on the go all the time, and that to sit down and write to me would be out of their line of duty. Now that I have your letter it makes five who have written i.e. Jno. Hy. [John Henry Smith], Prest. [Francis M.] Lyman, [Abraham] Owen [Woodruff], Rudger [Clawson] and yourself [Matthias F. Cowley]. … He [Anthon H. Lund, of the First Presidency] writes to me regularly. I think partially because I wrote him so often and so much while he was in Liverpool, and if this is one of the reasons then I am getting paid for what I did then, and I appreciate one of the President taking the time to write me as he does, especially when I know of all that they have to do.

As the mission president in Japan, he supported the activities of two sister missionaries serving there with their husbands, and wanted them to be comfortable and safe:

it seemed to me that the best thing would be for elders Ensign and Featherstone to be together with their wives at the place where Bro. Featherstone now is. I feel that the sisters can do nearly as much good as the brethren, when they shall have mastered the language, and I can plainly see that they will progress much better if they are located with Japanese families or in a Japanese hotel, and while I am not sure that it would be perfectly safe for them to go to separate places with their husbands I am inclined to the opinion that it will be perfectly safe if the two married men are together, and the sisters will be together while they are out tracting. I would like Horace to write me fully and freely as to what he thinks of such an arrangement. I shall ask for Bro F.’s opinion by this same mail. I think that the seashore is perhaps the best place for the sisters, and that they will enjoy that location the best.

He expressed his support for a newly sustained President Joseph F. Smith:

In all of our meetings each of us have spoken in the warmest terms and expressed our unbounded love and confidence in you, and feel to rejoice that the man at the head of the Church of Christ has our unbounded love and perfect confidence. We have earnestly prayed that the Lord would bless and comfort all who are called on to mourn because of the death of Prest. Snow.

After his release from the mission in Japan, President Grant went to Liverpool, England, to serve as president of the British and European Missions. He didn’t leave Japan entirely behind – when war broke out between Japan and Russia in 1904, he considered the effect of the war on the mission work there:

From my knowledge of the people I feel that they will have war on the brain and can think or talk of nothing else. I do not know a more patriotic people on the face of the globe than the Japanese and the entire people will think of nothing else but the war, and I am sure until it is over almost nothing can be accomplished by the Elders.

Mob violence against LDS missionaries in Britain became quite intense during President Grant’s mission, and he painted a colorful picture for correspondents at home:

The London papers have been full and running over with sensational stories about the Mormons, some of them of a blood-curdling order. Our London mission house, two weeks ago, had a howling mob gathered outside the building during the services Wednesday evening. Some rocks were thrown at the house but no damage done. A week ago Sunday while services were being held at Finsbury Town Hall a crowd of several hundred was being harangued outside the building, the speaker trying to excite his audience to violence. I went to London last week with brother Nephi Anderson and left him there, hoping that he could get some articles in our defence in the newspapers. He has succeeded in getting one long article in one of the papers. … Several Aldermen and Councilmen have attended our meetings during the past two weeks, all of whom were very favorably impressed. Our meetings have been crowded. Some could not even get standing room. We feel that the agitation is doing us good.

Following his own dismal experience with learning a mission language, he was sensitive to requiring other men to struggle with new mission languages:

I understand that the Dutch language is a very hard language indeed – much harder than either French or German, and while I feel that brother [Serge F.] Baliff is thoroughly capable of presiding over this mission it is quite a question whether it would be fair to him, seeing that he is forty-four years of age, to ask him to learn the Dutch. I understand that notwithstanding brother Orson Pratt learned Greek Latin and Hebrew in his youth when he was between forty and fifty he made an utter failure in trying to learn a little German.

In 1898, after the battleship Maine with hundreds of sailors aboard was lost during the Spanish-American War, American dignitaries invited churches to join in a special day of memorial. This was not a general public call, but an invitation issued by letter to individual churches and religious figures … an invitation which was not, at first, extended to the Latter-day Saints. When this oversight was brought to the memorial committee’s attention, they responded with an apology and a special request that the Saints hold memorial services. Trivial as it might seem to us now, this was the kind of belated inclusion that could have been worked up by us into another evidence of national persecution … but it was not. The Church accepted the apology and, in a promotion led by Heber J. Grant and B.H. Roberts, asked the Saints to participate in the national event.

In the apology that is made through the representative of the National Maine Monument Committee to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, disclaiming any intention to slight the Church, and inviting it to take part in so patriotic a movement as the one here in question, we see one of the evidences of the fulfilment of the remarkable prophecy of President Woodruff, during the dedication of the temple, to the effect that the hearts of the people of this nation would be turned towards us and the power of the enemies of the church, who had in the past misrepresented the Saints, should be broken; and it is desired that our recognition of this fact and the courtesy that is shown to the church in asking it to join the other churches of the land in so patriotic an undertaking, should be both worthy of the Church and the occasion to be commemorated. Therefore, let an earnest effort be made to make these services a success and the collections worthy of the Church.

President Grant, a Democrat, had mixed feelings about Utah’s selection of Republican and Apostle Reed Smoot as a Senator, followed as it was by several years of intense opposition and scrutiny before he could take his seat. To a close friend he wrote:

I was in Japan when Reed was elected, but I feel that it was all right, and while it now looks as if we would have had peace if an Apostle had kept out of the race, yet as the devil is not dead, it was no doubt as well to have the fight come now as at some future time. I agree with you that it is much better for our brethren not to be hunting offices, but the appetite for public office is a strong one the world over. Latter-day Saints seem to have it as strong as any other people. While the Presidency have kept out of the political fight the world will not believe this; as they will think Reed dare not do any work if it was not with the full approval of all his associates. I am of the opinion it would have been better to have had him keep out of the local fight, as his very success would injure us and his defeat would have done us no good. Had he not worked and worked hard Wells would have been nominated and no Church influence could have been charged. I am so far away that I do not think my opinion amounts to anything, but as you wrote on these lines I have given it.

With regard to a later (1935) political question, he advised his correspondents:

Communism undertakes to control, if not indeed to prescribe, the religious life of the people living within its jurisdiction, and that it even reaches its hand into the sanctity of the family circle itself, disrupting the normal relationship of parent and child … Communism being thus hostile to loyal American citizenship and incompatible with true Church membership, of necessity no loyal American citizen and no faithful Church member can be a Communist.

As Church president, he reminded priesthood leaders of the Church’s missionary obligation:

The missionary responsibility of the Church, now as always, is of supreme importance. The Lord still looks to us to carry the Gospel message to His children all over the earth. Already a marvelous work in this respect has been accomplished. Yes, even in the eyes of an unbelieving world it is marvelous. But the end is not yet. The harvest is by no means over. …

And so we are making another appeal to you for brethren to engage in this service of love to our fellow-men. This time we are asking particularly for short-term missionaries, who are in a position to spend the fall and winter months in the various missions of the United States and Canada. We want men of experience, of wisdom, of good judgment, who are sound in doctrine and exemplary in their lives. Our hearts have been gladdened by the excellent reports which we have received of those who have performed short-term missions. Their presence has had a most salutary and wholesome effect upon the young elders, and they have been a source of strength and stability to the missionary work. Not only that, but upon their return hone they have radiated the missionary spirit in the wards and stakes of Zion.

Yet he recognized the limits of missionary efforts. When the movie Brigham Young came out in 1940, he cautioned mission presidents against assigning elders to hand out literature in theatre lobbies:

We feel that it would be unwise to follow this practice; first, because the picture itself tells the story of our early history very sympathetically, and, secondly, because there is danger that over-zeal might counteract any good impression that the audience might have after having seen the play.

Do I detect a whiff of sarcasm, or is it only a note of incredulity, in this letter?

There have come to us a number of requests that men holding Church positions should be permitted to act as liquor store-keepers for the State.

After the most mature and careful consideration we have concluded that the two positions are incompatible, and that any man holding a Church position and desiring to become a State dispenser of liquor should resign his Church office before assuming his duties as a dispenser of liquor.

In 1928, he extended the preparation time of elders between their call and their actual departure for the field: and notified local leaders by circular letter how best to use that additional time:

In order that prospective missionaries may be given more time to make the necessary preparation, it is considered advisable to request Bishops to send the recommendations to the First Presidency at least three months before the missionaries leave. During this period they should be assigned to special missionary work, or ward teaching, and be given an opportunity to speak in the sacrament meeting and assist in the ordinance work at fast meeting. It would be advisable, if they have not already been ordained to the office of an Elder, that they be advanced in the Priesthood so that they night have experience in this office.

There are many ward activities to which the missionaries might be assigned which would prepare them for effective service in the mission field. It would also give those who are called to labor in foreign missions sufficient time to procure their passports, as well as other necessary arrangements.

Again by circular letter, he led the fight to stamp out fundamentalist rebellion within the Church:

Persistent reports are coming to us of activity by a group said to be propagating a false doctrine and illegal practice of polygamous or plural marriage … We desire that this matter shall be fully and directly called to the attention of every Latter-day Saint, that none shall be in ignorance of the falsity of the doctrines or of the illegality of the practices of this group, nor in doubt as to the spiritual falling away of its members and those who follow them, nor unaware of the Church disciplinary measures which must be taken against unrepentant participants in this unrighteous and rebellious activity.

Any Church member belonging to this group or adopting or advocating its doctrines and practices, is not to be considered in good fellowship in the Church, is not entitled to and should not be granted any of the rights and privileges appertaining to Church members – such as entry into the temples, the payment of tithes, participation in the activities of the priesthood quorums or of the auxiliary organizations of the Church, or in other Ward, Stake, or Church activities – and should, unless now truly repenting, be immediately and formally dealt with by excommunication, as directed in the Official Statement.

The great law-abiding, faithful Church membership cannot and must not be brought into disrepute, nor their honor and good faith challenged, by a small group of recalcitrant and evilly-led Church members in rebellion.

With the world deep in the Great Depression, President Grant’s letters to local leaders urged generosity and a vigilant effort to relief suffering:

The cries of those in distress must be hushed by our bounty. The words of the Lord require this from us. A feeling of common humanity bids it from us. Never has the Church membership had a better opportunity than now to reap a harvest from obedience to the law, given by the Savior, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” If we shall fully observe that law, the Lord will pour out his richest blessings upon us; we shall be better and happier than ever before in our history; and peace and prosperity will come to us.

The spiritual condition and faith of the members of any Ward or Stake may be gauged by their response to this urgent call of the unfortunate for help. …

We … urge, earnestly and always, upon the people, the paramount necessity of living righteously, of avoiding extravagance, of cultivating habits of thrift, economy, and industry, of living strictly within their incomes, and of laying aside something, however small the amount may be, for the times of greater stress that may come to us.

His advice to men called into World War II military service was distributed by letter:

We exhort men in the service of government everywhere, ever to have in mind the life and teachings of the Master; hour by hour to keep out from their hearts, in the camp and on the battle field itself, all cruelty, hate, and murder; always to have in their thoughts the few short years of time as against the unnumbered cycles of eternity; never to forget that the gross pleasures of the flesh lead always to destruction, while the lofty joys of the spirit build everlasting joy and progression. We urge them so to live that whether in health or in sickness and distress, whether in sound body or afflicted with wounds, they may call upon the Lord with the faith and knowledge that they are entitled to His help and succor, in such measure and at such time as shall meet the dispensations of His mercy, His wisdom, His purposes. We ask them to light their souls with Job’s divine wisdom: “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” We promise them that living according to the eternal truths of the Gospel, ‘the peace of God shall rule their hearts,’ “the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”

In anticipation of V-E (“Victory in Europe”) Day near the end of World War II, President Grant addressed the Church by circular letter:

We are quite in harmony with the thought that the observance of this day should be celebrated as a day of gratitude to our heavenly Father for the cessation of this terrible European slaughter, which we are sure has deeply grieved our Heavenly Father.

Since the Church is world-wide with many thousands of our members citizens of the enemy country – members who deeply love their own homeland, and who individually are no more responsible for this terrible holocaust than we have been – we feel it essential that the Church as such should make its observance of “V-Day” of a character that would not grieve or wound the feelings of those whose mother country is one of the enemy states. … We suggest to our Bishops that they have in their regular sacrament services on the Sunday following “V-Day,” prayers and remarks that will express to our Heavenly Father gratitude that the terrible bloodshed in Europe has ceased; that will thank Him for our Constitution and for the Republic established thereunder with its liberty and free institutions, and that will solemnly implore the Lord mercifully to continue these priceless blessings to us; that will petition Him to cause the spirit of peace to enter into the hearts of the people and to bring it about that the treaties of peace shall be drawn in such [a] way as will greatly lessen, if not indeed forestall, the possibility of wars in the future; and that will humbly ask that arrogance, hate, and vengeance and the will for conquest shall be driven from the earth, and that gloating and triumph over victory shall be submerged in our hearts by gratitude for the ending of the conflict and by a love for our fellow men and a recognition of the common brotherhood of man.

Heber J. Grant did not live to see the end of the war, dying on May 14, 1945, a week after V-E Day.



8 Comments »

  1. Nephi Anderson writing letters to the London papers! That’s cool! Are there any of those lying around that you could share?

    Comment by Grant — August 7, 2013 @ 8:29 am

  2. They’re probably around, but I haven’t scouted them up yet, Grant.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 7, 2013 @ 8:31 am

  3. Maybe I’ll come across something in British Mission files. . .

    Comment by Grant — August 7, 2013 @ 9:10 am

  4. I appreciate reading about the struggles Pres. Grant had in Japan. Not just because I’m a returned missionary from there, but that it shows his human side; if some of his stature is willing to ‘fess up about his inadequacies and shortcomings I feel better about mine. As D&C 46 reminds us, not all have the same gifts.

    Comment by Chad Too — August 7, 2013 @ 11:29 am

  5. That’s probably what impresses me the most, too, Chad.

    These are the kinds of details I strongly believe need to be part of our history and biography. I don’t like the phrase “warts and all” because I don’t consider an insight like this to be a wart. It’s honest and humble and human, and it gives me hope without offering excuses. It’s authentic.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 7, 2013 @ 11:48 am

  6. Wonderful stuff, Ardis.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 7, 2013 @ 12:18 pm

  7. I’m late to the party, but will share my two cents anyway.

    The liquor board comment may not be as obviously ridiculous as it seems. Hugh B Brown served as 1/3 of the state’s liquor control board during the period, and Church-owned facilities, including the Hotel Utah and Saltair, served alcohol. During the pioneer era, of course, several prominent Mormons (including Porter Rockwell) ran saloons and breweries, and the span of time between Rockwell and Grant (about 60 years) is less than between Grant and the present.

    On the call for short-term missionaries, do any of the ‘ninnies know of a source for background info for this? My g-grandfather was called on a mission in the late 19-teens although married with two small kids. Family legend says that each ward was given a quota to fill, but I have no solid evidence.

    Comment by The Other Clark — August 12, 2013 @ 3:26 pm

  8. TOClark, it probably wasn’t a ward quota, but a 70s quorum quota. I’ve read countless letters from this era (it’s what I’m working on now) from various general quorums (1P,Q12, 70) pleading for more missionaries and suggesting that the 70s provide one or two missionaries per quorum. This wasn’t a program that ran from some specific date to some other date, but simply a tactic they tried from time to time to find the missionaries they needed. Most of the 70s who were called as a result were experienced men, usually married and often with at least one mission already under their belts.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 12, 2013 @ 4:01 pm

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