Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Heber J. Grant quoting David Starr Jordan

Heber J. Grant

In General Conference, if a general authority quotes another work so extensively that it makes up the majority of his discourse, you might assume that the quotation comes from the scriptures or another important LDS work. And if something like that happened in a sacrament meeting talk, in many wards the member who gave the talk would be admonished to stick to the scriptures and teachings of the prophets and apostles.

But in April 1914, Elder Heber J. Grant, a 31-year veteran among the apostles, read about 1/2 of his talk from a book by David Starr Jordan.

He wasn’t the first to cite Jordan. Elder David O. McKay had quoted Jordan the previous year. Nor was he the last. Jordan was cited at least once a decade until the 1980s by at least 7 other general authorities.

David Starr Jordan
David Starr Jordan

David Starr Jordan was the chancellor of Stanford University and had just stepped down after serving as the first president of that University for 22 years. Prior to that he had served for seven years as the president of Indiana University, where he had been the youngest university president in the nation. Trained as an ichthyologist, Jordan wrote several textbooks before moving on to writing in other fields, including advice or self-help books and the promotion of peace.

On January 30th, 1898 he gave a speech for the 45th anniversary of the Young Men’s Christian Association of San Francisco. This address, entitled The Strength of Being Clean, was then printed and became a rather popular advice booklet. I read the 1900 edition last night (its only 45 pages – you can read my goodreads review here) and I think that it doesn’t sound too different from many college graduation speeches given to day, except longer and with stronger opinions.

In 1914, Elder Grant began his reading of excerpts from the book this way:


David Starr Jordan’s writings and confirming value of the Word of Wisdom

by Heber J. Grant


Some of the remarks made today have called to my mind a subject upon which I had no intention of speaking. I hold in my hand a little book written by David Starr Jordan, “The Strength of Being Clean.” The retail price, I believe, is thirty-five cents, but if you purchase the book, one hundred copies at a time you can get it for twenty-five cents. I have given away at least a couple of hundred copies.


I have been much pleased with the book, “The Strength of Being Clean.” I understand that President Joseph F. Smith says it is one of the strongest ever written by a non-member of the Church in vindication of the Word of Wisdom. Mr. Jordan was for years the President of the Leland-Stanford, Jr., University of California. The Latter-day Saints should be grateful to this great educator, one of the greatest in our country, for writing a book which confirms the teachings of Joseph Smith, the Prophet; an “ignoramus” in the estimation of many people.

Mr. Jordan says:

“It is vulgar to like poor music, to read weak books, to feed on sensational newspapers, to trust to patent medicines, to find amusement in trashy novels, to enjoy vulgar theaters, to find pleasure in cheap jokes, to tolerate coarseness and looseness in any of its myriad forms.* * *

It is the hope of civilization that our republic may outgrow the toleration of vulgarity, but that is still a long way in the future.* * *

“A form of vulgarity is profanity. This is the sign of a dull, coarse, unrefined nature. * * *

General Conference
April 1914


After reading the entire work, I was surprised at how much of it confirms ideas that are prevalent in Mormonism today and confirm my own views, although sometimes I think he is a bit harsh.

But in this case I’m not completely sure that I agree with his statement. Like a lot of the disagreements I have with the mormon market today, the problem isn’t so much with the general idea (at least not as I interpret him), but with how it is said and described. Describing works of art or works in print as “poor,” “weak,” “sensational,” “trashy,” “cheap,” and “vulgar” is at the least subjective. And when you consider the history of the word “vulgar” it might be seen as a difference in class because “vulgar” historically means “common” or “ordinary.” [This view is especially salient given Jordan’s later involvement in the eugenics movement.]

Still, I think the subjectivity here is intended to address quality and offensiveness, not class. The definition of “vulgar” Jordan is using is what might apply to profanity and pornography instead of commonplace or ordinary.

But even with that definition, I’m not sure that I can agree with Jordan. Does he mean works that are themselves of low quality (whatever that means) or offensive? Or does he mean works that simply portray things that are offensive, but that happen in real life? Is the issue works that are by nature bad or evil, or those that merely portray evil? And, is there a place for works that are meant to offend? Or must all works be inoffensive?

In this talk Grant uses Jordan’s booklet, in addition to the statements above, primarily as a statement not about what is vulgar, but about the word of wisdom. And every other quotation from The Strength of Being Clean in General Conference talks (except one by David O. McKay in 1955 which cites the same passage Grant read above) is in reference to its statements about tobacco, alcohol and drug use.

If nothing else, the use of Jordan’s booklet demonstrates the influence it has had on general authorities over many years. Like James Allen’s As a Man Thinketh, Jordan’s work has probably had a significant impact on Mormon thinking in the 20th century.

6 thoughts on “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Heber J. Grant quoting David Starr Jordan”

  1. I’m going to hold off for a while, not least because I’ve got about 40 notebooks to grade in forty minutes. Just want you to know that my thoughts have been provoked.

  2. Wm (1), somehow I’m not quite sure that its quite that simple — or that Jordan’s statements are merely high brow vs. low brow (although that element is there).

    Mark (2), I look forward to your comments.

  3. Interesting find. I’m interested in the ways LDS leaders have drawn on non-LDS voices over time, so I appreciate the post.

  4. The challenge for me is how to write work that is fully honest and fully artistic and serves (or at least does not work against) the values and objectives of my faith. In this respect, I think visual artists have it easier. The people in their pictures don’t have to think, just look like they’re thinking. Visual artists can commemorate religious moments without critiquing them or coming off as fanatical propagandists. I don’t mean by that that they can’t critique or propagandize. Poets, storytellers, essayists, bloggers and all that sort who use the pen or its various substitutes to articulate thought (their own or their character’s) are by nature of their art saying something about whatever they depict or describe.

    Actually, there’s more to the trick, because the honesty entails admitting the flux of faith (or belief, or trust). I am committed to the Gospel and the Church because I see that on the whole they are good, but it has been many years since I last declared that I know either to be true, because, among other things, my definition of the word true involves something of the scientific, which religious experience eludes. Like a good hypothesis or theory, the Gospel works for me (as a guide and inspiration), but like Newtonian physics and Relativity, it is supercedable. What Joseph Smith meant by truth when referring to the Gospel was something different from what I mean by it. For me, the Gospel is good—always has been and, barring insanity, probably always will be.

    It’s late and I’m tired and somebody has sprayed Raid in the school, so I think I’ll stop there for the moment. Maybe tomorrow I can explain why this comment belongs in this thread.

  5. I guess the key link between Kent’s post and my foggy-headed diatribe of the other day lies in the theme of “stronger opinions” and “a place for works that are meant to offend”. Those two noun phrases activated pathways burned fairly deeply into my wee noggin.

    The main point I want to make is that at this juncture in human history and the history of our church, when in the context of society we are free to be religious and in the context of our religion (though perhaps not our assemblies) we are free to think and talk about what we think, we have an opportunity to develop and express what you might call “critical discipleship”. Key to any “critical” endeavour (a la critical thinking, critical reading, etc.) is a flexibility of view, a willingness and ability to adjust opinions and the models they stem from, the ability to believe without being blind (indeed, because of not being blind) and to examine without rejecting.

    We have inherited a nineteenth century American church founded on divine authority and direct revelation. Can we keep the authority and revelation while discarding the nineteenth century and the American?

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